Consumers Split on Ad Limits

NEW YORK Consumers are divided about whether self-policing by food companies advertising to kids is a good thing, per a new survey.

Nielsen BuzzMetrics sampled 100 randomly selected messages about vows by food companies to restrict advertising to children. The messages were culled from blogs, message boards and other forms of consumer-generated media between April and July. The report found 31 percent of the comments were positive, 25 percent were negative and the rest were either unsure, mixed or had no opinion. Those who took an adverse view tended to think the companies were doing so out of self-interest or fear of lawsuits.

“There’s mixed sentiment around the issue,” said Max Kalehoff, vp, marketing at Nielsen BuzzMetrics, New York (which, like Adweek, is owned by the Nielsen Co.). “This presents a critical juncture for marketers because consumers are just beginning to make up their minds.”

The split in sentiment was reminiscent of the late 2006 chatter about trans fats in which some advocated personal responsibility and others cheered government intervention, the report states.

Last month, as 11 of the nation’s biggest food and drink companies (Coca-Cola, Hershey, McDonald’s, General Mills, Campbell Soup, PepsiCo, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Cadbury Schweppes, Mars and Unilever) vowed to limit advertising to children 11-and-under, online conversations about advertising to kids spiked 92 percent compared to May, Kalehoff said.

The Federal Trade Commission prompted the action in April by announcing it would subpoena 44 food and beverage marketers for detailed information on how they market to children. The FTC handed out subpoenas earlier this month. The companies must comply by Nov. 1.

McDonald’s was the most commonly mentioned company with regard to the issue, followed by Kellogg, Kraft and Coca-Cola. (That was among a larger sample of 898 messages between April and July.) Happy Meal choices and balanced kids’ meals are among the most discussed topics.

McDonald’s rep Walt Riker said consumers should judge the company by its deeds. “We look forward to shining a light on our actions. McDonald’s should be judged in our actions, not perception. That’s the key when it comes to the marketing issue. When you break through the preconceived notions and look at what we’ve actually been doing, it’s a completely different story.”

Riker said the recent Shrek: The Third tie-in was its single biggest global promotion of fruit, vegetables and milk, and that all U.S. advertising for Happy Meals promote low-fat milk, apple dippers and white meat chicken McNuggets. “We’re listening to our customers, families and parents and will continue to do so.”

McDonald’s also relies heavily on the children’s market because “a large part of the business is driven by nagging by kids for kids meals,” said Arjun Sen, president of the Restaurant Marketing Group, Centennial, Colo. “For the nagging factor to continue to be strong, the brand must stay in touch with kids [both via media and by store display] on what they are offering. This is important as kids, too, are showing signs of attention fatigue. Hence, if you are not in front of them on an ongoing basis, it is tough to stay connected to the brand.”

Critics, however, say the proactive stance is merely a pose to deflect unwanted attention and legal action.

“There are parallels to the tobacco industry,” said Kathryn Montgomery, author of Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce and Childhood in the Age of the Internet. “The food and beverage industries would like to reduce the pressure. They’re saying, ‘We’re going to do a lot of these things. Please go away.’ But we won’t, because the rate of childhood obesity is truly alarming.”

Not everyone agrees. One-tenth of the conversations tracked view lawsuits attributing obesity to food and beverage companies as frivolous. And 7 percent are worried their favorite snacks will be reformulated affecting their taste.