Study: Industry’s Found Sneaky Way to Keep Advertising Junk Food to Kids

Ads down, but replaced with product placement, authors say

Food and beverage advertisers may have found a handy way to dodge their own guidelines restricting the marketing of junk food to children, according to a new study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. While companies have cut back on TV ads aimed at children, and in some cases cut out TV ads for candy altogether, they've also upped the use of product placement, the study found.

That's a loophole that the Council of Better Business Bureaus' Children's Food and Beverage Initiative, the industry's self-regulatory program, should close, the study concluded. "We want to recognize the food industry has changed how they market to children. We just want to make sure there isn't other stuff going under the radar," said Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center and one of the authors of the study.

The study comes at a rotten time for food and beverage advertisers, which are in a heated battle over the federal government's new proposed voluntary guidelines on marketing to children, which, if followed, would affect every marketing tactic from advertising to packaging to sponsorships. 

Opponents to the feds' proposed guidelines wrote off the Rudd Center study as more of the same. "It's the usual thing. They set up their own grading system and then they give us an 'F,'" said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers. "The government has set up very clear criteria that we meet. They aren't looking at advertising directed to kids, but all advertising that might be seen by kids."

The authors analyzed Nielsen product placement data during prime time in 2008. On average, children 2-11 are exposed to 281 product placements for junk food during prime time, per the study released Tuesday. Adolescents 12-17 are exposed to 444 product placements.

The worst offender was soft drinks, which accounted for two-thirds of product placement appearances. Coca-Cola alone accounted for 71 percent of product placement occurrences viewed by children. It was also the only company where the product placement exposure exceeded the number of TV ads viewed by children. Children saw almost 10 times as many Coke brand occurrences as ads and nearly all of them—192 out of 198—were in one program, American Idol, which reached 2 million children 2-11 a year.

"Soft drinks have switched their [marketing] strategy," said Schwartz. "Coca-Cola said they were not going to market to children under 12. By sheer numbers, they are reaching massive numbers of children. That's the loophole. Whether they mean to or not, the kids are seeing that. If they really want to be sure, then put it on an adult show that's on at night, a drama where adults make up the audience. Idol is a family show. It's disingenuous."

Only 8 percent of the audience for American Idol is children 2-11, according to Nielsen.

"Prime time isn't a daypart an advertiser wanting to reach children would look at," said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of corporate research for Horizon Media. Weekday afternoons and Saturdays make more sense, as that's when children make up between 13 percent and 18 percent of the TV viewing audience, according to an analysis of Nielsen data by Horizon.

"The CFBAI is directed at changing the ads that are directed to children, and the participants are doing an outstanding job of complying," said Elaine Kolish, the CFBAI's director. Kolish noted that data from the Georgetown Economic Services found that carbonated beverage advertising in children's programming decreased by nearly 100 percent between 2004 and 2010. "Our program focuses on child-directed advertising," she said. "We respect the rights of advertisers to advertise to adults." 

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