As marketers continue to debate new self-regulatory guidelines for ads directed at kids, advocacy groups are pushing lawmakers and regulators to curb interactive ads that they claim irresponsibly push junk food at a time when childhood obesity rates are soaring.
Although there are no immediate plans in Washington to ban ads based on their content, proposals abound to limit advertisers' use of interactive media—especially the emerging possibility that children watching regulated broadcast digital TV will be able, with a click of the remote, to be transported to rules-free Internet selling sites.
FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said at a July 20 forum in Washington, organized by the advocacy group Children Now, that his agency should "severely limit" click-through advertising. His fellow Democrat, Commissioner Michael Copps, suggested that "at a minimum" parents should be able to turn off such services on their TV sets. A provision before the U.S. Senate goes further, proposing a ban on links to commercial matter during kids programming and during ad breaks.
The Association of National Advertisers served notice it thinks that's a bad idea, telling key senators in a July 17 letter that "media innovations … will be strangled" by the interactivity ban and other proposed restrictions. "This far-reaching legislative language is a 'solution' in search of a problem," said ANA evp Dan Jaffe.
Dale Kunkel, a communications professor at the University of Arizona, said at the forum that half of the ads on kids' TV are for food, and 85 percent of those are for junk. Kunkel calculates that if a kid bought each food advertised in a typical day of viewing, it would take six weeks to consume it without exceeding dietary guidelines.
The debate coincided with the release by the Kaiser Family Foundation of what it called the first survey of online food marketing to children. According to the foundation, which also hosted the Children Now forum, 85 percent of leading food brands that use TV advertising to attract children also are targeting them with Web sites. The study examined 96 food brands and found that while most sites contained a single brand, more than one-fourth featured multiple ones—with an average of nine brands per site. Games, promotions, viral marketing efforts, membership opportunities, and movie and TV tie-ins were among the features of the sites, which aim to capture kids in ways that a TV spot cannot.
For example, at Popsicle.com, part of Good Humor-Breyers Ice Cream, players can reach extra levels as their skill improves. At Nestlé's Wonka.com, Wonka Club Dub offers visitors "a personally flavored home page," special screen savers and e-cards. At Neopets.com, where children can create a virtual pet that they must feed, food choices include McDonald's Happy Meals, Apple Dippers and cheeseburgers. And kids can go shopping at a virtual grocery store at Millsberry.com, which features Lucky Charms webisodes.
All of which put wind into the sails of media critics at the Children Now forum, who pointed out that children under 6 cannot distinguish between programming and ads. "We are conducting a massive experiment on our kids, and parents have not given their consent," said Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. She called for federal funding for research into media's effects on children. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said sophisticated scanning could reveal how video stimulates children's brains. "As we continue to hear deep concerns about television and our children, and we look at how the brain is wired, you will see this issue continue to come forward," Brownback said.
Execs on the Kaiser panel accentuated the positive. Matt Palmer, svp, marketing for the Disney Channel, touted its limited sponsorship, lack of ads and the coming expiration of its marketing pact with McDonald's. He faced a quick rejoinder from Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who said Toon Disney is replete with food ads. "They undermine parents' efforts to feed their children healthy diets," Wootan said. Palmer countered that Disney is always reviewing its inventory.
Wootan's center in January served notice in Massachusetts it intends to sue Kellogg and Viacom, owner of Nickelodeon, over advertising of unhealthy foods. Last week, Nickelodeon announced it would license the characters Sponge Bob and Dora the Explorer to boost sales of organic edamame, adding to deals that have popular characters gracing supermarket displays of pears, apples and cherries. Sherice Torres, vp, Nickelodeon and Viacom consumer products, said her company would "continue to look for opportunities to use our stable of loved characters to encourage healthy food choices."
Some suggested regulators might leave companies no option but to encourage healthier choices. Joan "Jodie" Bernstein, a former member of the Federal Trade Commission who chairs a committee overseeing revisions to the guidelines for the Children's Advertising Review Unit, was asked what will happen if self-regulation doesn't work. "My personal opinion is yes," she said. "I think further steps of protection will have to be taken."