Kids Food Marketing Faces New Attacks

Jul 24, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Children’s food ads are under scrutiny in Washington again, but this time the focus is on specific marketing tactics, portending woes for other kids advertisers and raising the stakes for media companies with kids channels.

The new focus is double-barreled.

Critics and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., are aiming to bar media companies and marketers from using new technology to provide Web-like interactive links from TV shows to commercial sites during kids shows.

In addition, critics who have been dubiously eying marketers’ use of so-called “advergaming” are now calling into question those games, which require purchases in order to play or qualify for rewards and to viral marketing that pushes kids to e-mail their friends brand-related messages.

“Advertising has made a lot of good children’s television possible. But when we allow advertisers to go beyond normal and appropriate business practices, it’s time for all of us to be concerned,” said Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps, speaking at a Children Now forum in Washington. “In this age of hyper-commercialism, your kids and mine are seen by some as commodities-as products to be sold to advertisers. That’s trafficking in children and it has no place in our media or our country.”

The criticism was triggered last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation’s release of a report detailing how major TV food and fast-food advertisers are increasingly using their Web sites to target kids. At a Kaiser forum that followed the release and at the Children Now forum the next day, two senators and several FCC commissioners criticized advertising and the media.

“Something has got to give here because we cannot continue these trends,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., citing rising childhood obesity and urging congressional hearings and talks between government and the advertising and food industries.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., called for more research into the impact of media on kids and their choices.

“I think a lot of parents don’t understand the damaging effects of constant media exposure-the manipulation of children’s minds by advertisers-and they don’t exercise responsibility or believe they have the tools to do so,” she said. The fight about food has been rekindled from last year, but the twist this time is the additional focus on tactics also used by other kids marketers. In the past, most of the focus has been on whether marketers and media companies were too often promoting unhealthy food choices.

Sen. Rockefeller’s proposal to “prevent interactivity with commercial matter during any children’s programming” has been added to the legislation easing the way for phone companies to get cable franchises-legislation now on the Senate floor.

Mr. Copps said the rollout of interactive TV is just a year or two off and, warning that kids could be in danger, called on the FCC to quickly set some limits.

“Picture this: A child turns on a TV show, an icon pops up, the young viewer pushes a button on the remote and is immediately transported from the television show to a lavish Internet emporium where jingles, games and commercial products are available to tease, manipulate, sell and satisfy every desire,” he said. “Shouldn’t we get a handle on this before some harmful consequences are felt?”

Sen. Rockefeller has called his proposal “a common-sense effort to protect our children and give parents greater comfort about what their children are watching.”

The Association of National Advertisers last week launched a last-minute fight against the proposal, warning that “new media innovations and communications technologies will be strangled or severely damaged” by the proposal.

The impact of the fights isn’t insignificant on media companies.

Lee Hunt, a consultant on who works with marketers and media companies on interactive efforts, said Mr. Rockefeller’s legislation could make it more difficult for TV and cable companies to compete against the growing use of the Web by kids.

“The problem is that interactive advertising on the Web is what’s killing advertising on television,” he said. “Unless I’m missing the nuance, I can create an interactive ‘Jimmy Neutron’ experience [on the Web], but not an interactive Nickelodeon experience. So if I’m a programmer, I’m going to move all my interactivity exclusively to the Web. That’s not good for broadcast, cable and satellite operators, especially since that already seems to be the path kids are following.”

Ad groups contend that spending on and viewership of the kids marketers’ Web sites is small compared with other advertising vehicles and note that the ad industry is rewriting its ad code, with the new code due out by Labor Day.