WASHINGTON Marketing food and drinks to children these days occurs with more than just a few television ads. It involves promotional displays at grocery stores and packaging that directs them to Web sites where they can play games, win prizes or send e-cards to a friend.
In all, the nation's largest food and beverage companies spent about $1.6 billion in 2006 marketing their products to children, according to a Federal Trade Commission report released Tuesday.
About $200 million of that went to cross-promotional campaigns designed to provide children and teens with repeated product exposure across several venues. For example, some 80 films, television shows and video games were used to also promote food and beverages to children and teens, the FTC found.
The commission's report stems from lawmakers' concern about growing obesity rates in children. It gives researchers new insight into how much companies are spending to attract youth to their products, and what venues the companies are using for their marketing. To come up with its estimate, the FTC used confidential financial data that it required the companies to provide.
Overall, the spending was much less than some previous estimates had indicated. Still, it represents a large pot of money that is being used to entice children to foods that are often unhealthy choices, said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who sought the study.
"This study confirms what I have been saying for years," Harkin said. "Industry needs to step up to the plate and use their innovation and creativity to market healthy foods to our kids. That $1.6 billion could be used to attract our kids to healthy snacks, tasty cereals, fruits and vegetables."
The commission studied spending directed at children ages 2-17. Spending on soda marketing came to $492 million, with the vast majority of that spending directed toward adolescents. Fast food restaurants reported spending close to $294 million, which was divided about evenly between children and adolescents. For cereals, companies spent about $237 million, with the vast majority of that targeted to children under age 12.
The 44 companies reviewed spread their marketing across all segments of the media, the commission found. Popular movies were often incorporated into the campaigns. For example, "Superman Returns" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" were prominently linked to many food products last year. Companies created limited-edition snacks, cereals, waffles and candy based on the movies. They offered prizes on the Internet to buyers of those products that ranged from video games to trips to Disney World to a $1 million reward for the capture of villain Lex Luthor.
"The Internet though far less costly than television has become a major marketing tool of food companies that target children and adolescents, with more than two-thirds of the 44 companies reporting online, youth-directed activities," the FTC report said.
Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University, said it's clear that marketing has adjusted for how kids spend more time these days: on the computer and on their cell phones. Regulators are struggling to keep up, she said.
"On the Internet, it's virtually an unregulated media environment and one that's hard for people to keep track of," Montgomery said.
As a result, the messages that companies use for television ads may differ from what they use in the digital media, she said.
"Parents who are concerned abut their children's eating habits have to understand that you can't just look at what's happening on television. That's not the way it is anymore. It's a pervasive marketing environment," Montgomery said.
The FTC made several recommendations as part of its report:
Media and entertainment companies should limit the licensing of characters to healthier foods and drinks.
Schools should adopt meaningful nutrition standards for the foods sold there, and companies should end all in-school promotion of products that don't meet such standards.
Companies that market food and drinks to children should expand public-outreach efforts to educate children about the importance of healthy eating and exercise, with particular attention aimed at minority populations that are disproportionately affected by childhood obesity.
"It's clear from our study that the food and media industries market food to our young people using enormous resources and creativity," said Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Now, we're calling on both industries to deploy their talents and resources to improve the nutrition content of food and beverages marketed to children."
The commission noted that its review came during a year in which food and beverage companies had committed to curtailing the marketing of unhealthy products.
The Council of Better Business Bureaus said Tuesday that its review of that voluntary campaign shows six companies complied with their pledge to advertise healthier products or to stop child-directed advertising altogether. Other companies that are part of the effort had implementation dates scheduled after the six months that the bureau reviewed.
The American Beverage Association also noted that it's asking member companies to not market beverages in media outlets whose audience consists mostly of children under age 12. The exception to that rule will be for fruit juice, milk and water.