It's a rare day when I think the Federal Trade Commission has actually performed a valuable public service and lived up to its motto, "For the Consumer." But last week, the agency charged with protecting us from unscrupulous marketers (among other corporate aggression) released a landmark report on food marketing to children. At the request of Congress, FTC subpoenaed 44 food and beverage companies to find out just how much money is spent targeting youth with food marketing. While the recommendations are worthless (more on that later), the data is priceless.
In case you're not up for slogging through all 120 pages plus appendixes, here are what I consider the most revealing highlights. On expenditures, the 44 reporting companies spent approximately $1,618,600,000 to promote food and beverages to children and adolescents in the U.S. in 2006.
Causing some controversy in the trade media such as Ad Age has been how that $1.6 billion total figure is lower than previous estimates. There are many ways that FTC underestimated the total. For one, they didn't even bother include the value of the 1.2 billion toys that come with kids' fast food meals. That's right, 1.2 billion toys, every year! For more ways FTC fell down on the job, see the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood's press release.
But really, we can all agree that no matter what the dollar figure, kids are being bombarded daily with all kinds of messages to eat the wrong foods. If you're into numbers, here's a few more:
Carbonated beverages, restaurant (QSR) food, and breakfast cereals accounted for $1.02 billion. For carbonated beverages, the total was $492 million. Nearly 24%, or $116 million, of carbonated beverage youth marketing consisted of in-school expenditures. QSRs reported spending close to $294 million on promotions to youth. For cereals, the total was $237 million.
Beyond the facts and figures, the report is far more interesting for the context of how kids are marketed to. So let me offer up some of the most revealing paragraphs from the report. What often gets lost with just seeing a few examples here and there of junk food marketing to kids is the sheer breadth and scope of the myriad techniques. The FTC report does an excellent job of painting the full picture. As they note, "product marketing campaigns directed to youth typically are fully integrated:"
a child might first see an ad on television for a food product; the child would then encounter related promotional displays or product packaging in a retail setting or restaurant; the child might receive a related toy or other premium immediately upon purchase of the product or might be directed to the product website to enter a package UPC or other code to participate in sweepstakes or to receive "points" redeemable for prizes or digital content, such as ringtones; once on the website, the child might interact with the brand through online games or by sending "e-cards" (electronic greeting cards) or "send-to-a-friend" viral marketing messages to others.
Then the report describes the details behind each of these types of marketing techniques. Here FTC explains the use of toys by fast food outlets in the cross-promotion of films or other entertainment media:
Toys were generally sold in a series, encouraging children to purchase multiple meals so they could collect each separate toy. Premiums included figurines of film and television characters, plush toys, toy trucks and cars, puzzles and games, including toys for outdoor activities, and functional objects such as calculators, rulers, watches, wristbands, and water bottles. Restaurants also frequently structured their cross-promotions to include toys that would appeal to both girls and boys, such as a promotion for one quick-service "kids’ meal" that gave children the option of a G.I. Joe toy or a Bratz toy, and another promotion that offered the option of a Polly Pocket fashion doll or a toy Hummer vehicle.
A Hummer vehicle? Just the values we want to promote to our kids. And Bratz dolls have been roundly criticized for sexualizing childhood. If you missed the mass marketing of the Superman in 2006, you probably don't have kids. Here is how FTC describes that onslaught:
Products advertised in Superman cross-promotions included carbonated and non-carbonated drinks, breakfast cereals, pasta, snack foods, and QSR children’s meals. One dairy marketer used the lead actor from Superman in its "got milk?" milk mustache print ads. Limited edition cereal, snack, and pasta products took the shape of the Superman shield, and a "Buffalo wings" snack flavor was created to coincide with the film. Product samples were given out at movie premieres and other venues. Branded carbonated beverages were placed in the film itself. A restaurant offered Superman outdoor flying toys as children’s meal premiums, together with online activity challenges and the opportunity to track and compare individual progress; it also sponsored an online sweepstakes to win a laptop computer. Food company websites promoted the movie by telling the movie’s back-story, offering online games (find Lois Lane or find Superman, for example), revealing Superman trivia, and affording the opportunity to win prizes with a code found in or on packages. Superman-themed prizes – promoted on packages, in stores, and on the Internet – included a vacation trip to various U.S. landmarks; branded T-shirts, towels, and travel gear; video games; a $1,000,000 reward for the capture of villain Lex Luthor; and other cash awards. Other premiums included posters, game cards, discounts on Superman toys, lunch kits, activity books, a door hanger, and wallpaper downloads.
If your kid was screaming to see Superman way before it opened, now you know why. And remember, these examples only represent food-related marketing activities. This report also makes painfully clear that the days of kids viewing a few TV commercials for Captain Crunch cereal are long over. The digital age has arrived, and it's in your child's bedroom. Have you heard of advergaming? It's a word I had to learn a few years ago, to understand the world of marketing junk food through kid-friendly websites. What better way to keep children engaged with your brand then to get them to spend hours playing games on the Oreo or Coke website? As the FTC once again in governmental emotionless tones explains:
Advergames were a frequent feature on child- and teen-directed food company websites, appearing on websites for products such as snack chips, fruit snacks, seeds, candy, cookies, cereals, dairy products, cocoa, children’s frozen meals, restaurant food, frozen waffles, canned soups, fruit, and non-carbonated beverages. Product packaging often directed consumers to online games, with a chance to win a prize; companies occasionally rewarded children who entered codes from product packaging with access to additional game levels. In some cases, the games were designed so that consumption of the food product by the game’s characters was an objective for players. One candy website featured a teen-directed advergame in which players operated a virtual skill crane machine in an effort to retrieve candy bars with the crane; successful players had a chance to win iPod Nanos, as well as real candy.
Then there are examples of companies (they are not naming names) who had policies not to engage in this sort of marketing, but were doing it anyway. (Stay tuned for more on this theme.) For example:
In one case, a company allowed children to send an email to friends challenging them to play a game on one of the company’s food brand websites, despite having a policy of not engaging in Internet communications or activities, including websites, blogs, or games, targeting children under 12.
Ok, if you're not already depressed, this might get you. While most of the debate around marketing to kids has been about the ethics of targeting children too young to even understand what marketing is, the FTC report also focuses (rightly so) on teens. Since teenagers tend to spend their own cash, and at a time when they are making critical branding decisions that could last a lifetime, food marketers, especially those peddling soft drinks, spend millions gaining their loyalty. One of the best ways to reach teens is through viral marketing. Ever heard of WOMMA? It's the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. What's that you say, a trade association devoted to helping corporation with viral marketing? Yes, and here's how FTC explains the technique in the world of junk food branding:
Word-of-mouth activities frequently involved the recruitment of a group of consumers who could share promotional messages about brands with their peers; these consumers were referred to as "ambassadors" or "connectors." For example, one candy brand hired a group of snowboarders as ambassadors to hand out promotional DVDs and product samples at snowboarding venues. A flavored milk brand had an online brand ambassador program with a dedicated website featuring member profiles, message boards, and activity reports. Members earned points by engaging in online and offline promotional activities for the brand; points could then be redeemed on the website for gift cards, branded apparel, and other merchandise. Members also provided feedback on surveys and research questions. For example, a dairy group recruited "teen connectors" to provide feedback on materials for a new promotional campaign and to talk to others about the campaign and its messages. All reported word-of-mouth activities appeared to be teen directed; one candy company reported having a company policy prohibiting word-of-mouth marketing to children under age 13
Well, at least one company had standards, that's good to know. And I bet you didn't know your kids were ambassadors, for products of course, not countries. Another insidious technique is infiltrating popular culture such as concerts and other kid-oriented events. Here are a few examples:
Promotion of food and beverage products also occurred at music concerts and festivals, teen choice awards and music video awards, and other public appearances by musical entertainers. At one venue at which a candy company purchased billboard and scoreboard advertising, child-focused events included Disney on Ice, the Ringling Brothers Circus, Sesame Street Live, the Harlem Globetrotters, and Hilary Duff and Cheetah Girls concerts, while teen events included high school basketball, wrestling and cheerleading events, Fall Out Boy and American Idol concerts, and high school graduations. A children’s toaster pastry brand sponsored the national tour for American Idol, distributing samples at concerts and displaying branded ads on jumbo screen billboards.
A candy company partnered with Six Flags Amusement Parks and made frequent stops of its touring bus at the parks to conduct games, sampling, and premium giveaways; the company also displayed signage and ran 30-second television ads on monitors in the parks. A carbonated beverage company sponsored a "Holiday Caravan" – a branded truck in which children could have their photo taken with Santa. Another beverage company employed two teams of samplers that toured the country in branded vehicles, distributing samples and creating "impromptu" parties at sporting events, skating parks, and areas with numerous pedestrians, with occasional appearances by performing artists.
Great, so now we have commercials playing inside amusement parks. Why bother to try and restrict the ads kids see on TV, when companies just show them elsewhere, anywhere kids congregate. Product placement is fast becoming a popular marketing technique for all ages. While it's illegal to have product placement on children's TV (very narrowly defined), there are no such rules in movies. So here are some examples:
Companies also reported placements in PG- and PG-13-rated movies, including Curious George (fruit), The Shaggy Dog (carbonated beverages, juice, bottled water), Saving Shiloh (snack cakes), Zoom (snack cakes), Annapolis (snack cakes), RV (snack cakes), Click (snack cakes), Bring It On: All or Nothing (snack cakes), Step Up (cereal), Glory Road (carbonated beverages, bottled water), Eight Below (carbonated beverages), Aquamarine (carbonated beverages), How to Eat Fried Worms (carbonated beverages, bottled water), Flicka (carbonated beverages, sports drinks, bottled water), Superman Returns (carbonated beverages), Employee of the Month (sports drinks, cereal), School for Scoundrels (sports drinks), and The Fast and the Furious 3: Tokyo Drift (energy drinks). No placements in G-rated movies were reported.
In-school marketing also remains an intractable problem. The examples given in this part of the report were the most chilling to me, so I am sharing them here at length. While there is much talk these days about getting junk food out of schools and even some wonderful farm-to-school programs here and there, as this report indicates, both Big Food and especially Big Soda continue to target kids in this captive and incredibly influential environment. Here's how the report describes soda vending:
Vending machines accessible to students, with logo placement, signs, and displays, were the primary vehicle for promoting beverages, both carbonated and non-carbonated, to children and adolescents in elementary, middle, and high schools. Beverage bottlers had vending contracts with school districts or individual schools, and money paid to the schools pursuant to these contracts was often designated for sponsored events, such as high school football games and television recaps of games, after-school athletic programs, scholarships, or athletic apparel. In other instances, use of the funds was wholly discretionary with the school or school district. Some bottlers also provided free products to schools. One bottler sponsored contests directed to children and teens, with information displayed on the vending machines and winning stickers on or under caps of random bottles dispensed by the machines. Prizes – some of which could be redeemed at the school principal’s office – included tickets to football games, autographed footballs, licensed sports merchandise, fair tickets, ski passes, and T-shirts.
But it's not just vending; here is how one pizza company shills, all with the stamp of approval of little Johnny's school administration:
A company selling pizza and other entrees to school cafeterias (at all levels) sponsored a promotion in which schools could receive branded merchandise for use by students, including soccer balls, kick balls, Frisbees, backpacks, and notebooks, in exchange for placing the branded product names on cafeteria menus. Certain of its brands also were tied to a cross-promotion for the film Nanny McPhee; schools placing those brands on their cafeteria menus were entered into a contest to win a private screening of the movie and also received movie posters, movie passes for a student raffle, and other promotional materials.
Mexican specialty food products were tied to a Cinco de Mayo promotion through which schools could receive pedometers, as well as extra points to use toward other branded merchandise offerings. Another company rewarded schools with merchandise when students and parents collected and remitted the company’s food product labels. The program, which also featured ways to earn "bonus points," was promoted on the Internet, on packages, in stores, and through the endorsement of professional soccer player Freddy Adu.
While the FTC is trying hard not to identify companies, sometimes it's pretty easy to figure out. In this example, the only "baked cheese-flavored snack" company that would have the gall to promote exercise in schools with its "spokecharacter" is Frito-Lay's Cheetos:
A producer of baked cheese-flavored snacks offered in elementary and middle school cafeterias linked a popular spokescharacter to a program encouraging exercise, and also distributed U.S. maps. "Instant win" student prizes connected to the snack product included mountain bikes with helmets, iPod shuffles, and CDs, as well as branded soccer balls, kick balls, and T-shirts. The grand prize – a Jeep Hardtail Mountain Bicycle – was selected by random drawing, and the winner’s school was the site of a celebration party with a live DJ and snack samples.
Finally, under the heading of cross-promotion, I just can't leave out the following unbelievably long list of "media properties" that food companies used to target kids in 2006 alone. If you've got kids, try and count how many your little ones saw:
The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius•• (canned pastas and soups,snack chips)
American Idol•• (candy, cookies, toaster pastries)
The Ant Bully•• (QSR children’s meals, non-carbonated beverages)
Avatar•• (QSR children’s meals, fruit snacks)
The Backyardigans•• (fruit snacks, fruit)
Barbie: Fairytopia•• (breakfast cereals, toaster pastries)
Batman•• (canned pastas and soups, fruit snacks)
Blue’s Clues•• (breakfast cereals, fruit snacks, fruit, yogurt)
Care Bears•• (fruit snacks)
Cars ••(QSR children’s meals, fruit snacks, snack bars, breakfast cereals, toaster pastries, frozen waffles, canned pasta, pudding, cookies, snack crackers, popcorn, yogurt, non-carbonated beverages)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory•• (candy)
Charlotte’s Web•• (QSR children’s meals)
The Cheetah Girls•• (macaroni and cheese)
Chicken Little ••(fruit snacks)
The Chronicles of Narnia•• (QSR children’s meals, breakfast cereals, cereal bars, snack chips, fruit snacks, toaster pastries, packaged salads)
Clifford the Big Red Dog•• (QSR children’s meals, fruit juice, snack crackers, breakfast cereal)
Curious George•• (QSR children’s meals, breakfast cereals, snack cakes, fruit juice, bananas)
Danny Phantom•• (canned pastas and soups, children’s frozen meals, frozen desserts)
Disney Princesses (breakfast cereals, fruit snacks, yogurt, frozen waffles, toaster pastries)
Doogal•• (QSR children’s meals)
Dora the Explorer•• (breakfast cereals, canned pastas and soups, snack crackers, fruit snacks, cookies, fruit, yogurt)
Dragon Booster•• (QSR children’s meals)
El Chavo animated series (cookies)
Elmo•• and other Sesame Street characters (fruits and vegetables)
The Fairly OddParents•• (snack chips, macaroni and cheese, fruit snacks, frozen desserts)
Finding Nemo•• (fruit snacks)
Flushed Away•• (QSR children’s meals, breakfast cereals, snack bars, snack crackers)
Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends•• (QSR children’s meals)
Go, Diego, Go!•• (fruit snacks, yogurt)
Goosebumps•• (QSR children’s meals)
Happy Feet•• (QSR children’s meals, snack crackers, breakfast cereals, yogurt, fruit snacks, baked goods, carbonated and non-carbonated beverages)
Hello Kitty•• (fruit snacks)
Holly Hobbie and Friends•• (QSR children’s meals)
I Spy•• (QSR children’s meals, fruit juice)
Ice Age 2 ••(QSR children’s meals, yogurt, fruit snacks, cereal bars, breakfast cereals, toaster pastries, frozen waffles, children’s frozen meals, canned pasta, pudding, cookies, snack crackers, popcorn, carbonated and non-carbonated beverages)
King Kong ••(fruit snacks, snack cakes, cookies, carbonated beverages)
Klutz•• (QSR children’s meals)
Lady and the Tramp•• (carbonated beverages, snack cakes)
Leroy & Stitch•• (fruits and vegetables)
The Lion King ••(fruit snacks)
Little Einsteins•• (breakfast cereals)
The Little Mermaid•• (QSR children’s meals, breakfast cereals, candy)
The Littlest Pet Shop•• (QSR children’s meals)
Looney Tunes•• (QSR children’s meals, fruit snacks, fruits and vegetables)
Madagascar•• (fruit snacks)
Mickey Mouse Clubhouse•• (breakfast cereals)
Monster House•• (frozen pizza)
Monsters, Inc. ••(fruit snacks)
My Little Pony•• (fruit snacks)
¡Mucha Lucha!•• (fruit snacks, frozen desserts)
Nanny McPhee•• (food service pizza and burritos served in schools)
Nintendo characters such as Mario and Donkey Kong (QSR children’s meals)
One Tree Hill•• (carbonated beverages)
Open Season•• (QSR children’s meals, breakfast cereals, children’s frozen meals, popcorn)
Over the Hedge•• (QSR children’s meals, yogurt, snack chips, snack cakes, popcorn, carbonated and non-carbonated beverages)
Paz the Penguin•• (fruits and vegetables)
Peanuts•• (QSR children’s meals)
Pirates of the Caribbean•• (QSR children’s meals, candy, frozen waffles, fruit snacks, breakfast cereals, lunch kits, popcorn, non-carbonated beverages, fruits and vegetables)
Polar Express•• (popcorn)
Robots the Movie ••(fruit snacks)
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer•• (breakfast cereals, snack cakes)
Rugrats•• (fruit snacks)
Scooby-Doo•• (breakfast cereals, snack crackers, macaroni and cheese, fruit snacks, yogurt)
Shrek•• (breakfast cereals, macaroni and cheese, yogurt, fruit snacks, snack crackers, cookies)
Sony PlayStation characters Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot (popcorn)
Spider-Man ••(QSR children’s meals, breakfast cereals, cereal bars, cookies, pancakes, fruit snacks, snack crackers, snack chips, sliced cheese, macaroni and cheese, frozen desserts, non-carbonated beverages)
SpongeBob SquarePants•• (QSR children’s meals, breakfast cereals, snack crackers, macaroni and cheese, lunch kits, fruit snacks, cookies, yogurt, fruits and vegetables)
Star Wars Episode III•• (fruit snacks)
Strawberry Shortcake•• (QSR children’s meals)
Stuart Little 3•• (QSR children’s meals)
Superman Returns•• (QSR children’s meals, breakfast cereals, milk, cereal bars, snack chips, snack crackers, fruit snacks, packaged pasta, carbonated and non-carbonated beverages)
Surf’s Up•• (popcorn snack)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles•• (fruit snacks, fruit juice)
Trollz•• (QSR children’s meals)
The Wiggles•• (fruit juice)
The Wild•• (QSR children’s meals)
Winnie the Pooh•• (fruit snacks)
Winx•• (fruit snacks, fruit juice)
Xiaolin Showdown•• (breakfast cereals)
Yu-Gi-Oh!•• (QSR children’s meals)
Zoom•• (QSR children’s meals)
If you're still with me, you might be wondering, so what did the FTC recommend we do about this problem? Stay tuned for next post. Meantime, does this report surprise you, or put a label to what you are already knew was going on, or make you wonder why our tax dollars are being spent this way?