WASHINGTON — Total spending on food marketing to children ages 2 to 17 decreased to $1.79 billion in 2009 from $2.1 billion in 2006, according to a study released from the Federal Trade Commission.
The F.T.C. also found while industry self-regulation resulted in some nutritional improvements of the foods being marketed to children, some companies with significant advertising to children have not yet engaged in such self-regulation. Specifically, the entertainment industry has not made changes as media companies have yet to limit the licensing of children’s characters and placement of advertisements during children’s programs to more nutritious foods.
“The encouraging news is we’re seeing promising signs food companies are reformulating their products and marketing more nutritious foods to kids, especially among companies participating in industry self-regulation efforts,” said John Leibowitz, chairman of the F.T.C. “But there is still room for improvement: We will look for continued progress by the food industry and greater participation by the entertainment industry.”
Cereals marketed to children age 2 to 11 in 2009 had less sugar than in 2006 and slightly more whole grain. Additionally, marketing to children of cereals with 13 grams or more of sugar per serving was nearly eliminated between 2006 and 2009. Yet cereals with mostly refined grain continued to dominate children’s marketing in 2009. Cereals marketed using licensed characters and other cross-promotions had less than half the whole grain of cereals marketed without cross-promotions.
Beverages marketed to children and teenagers were slightly lower in calories in 2009 than in 2006, but the products still averaged more than 20 grams of added sugar per serving. The majority of the improvement in beverages came from products marketed and sold in schools.
Foods at quick-service restaurants marketed to children and teenagers were lower in calories, sodium, sugar and saturated fat in 2009, and menu items specifically identified as children’s meals were more nutritious than other meals and main dishes marketed to children.
Most of the decline in spending on food marketing to children was the result of less spending on television advertising, which also decreased 20%. Despite the decline in television spending, spending on new media, such as on-line, mobile and viral marketing, increased 50%. Also, heavily integrated marketing campaigns, which combine traditional media, Internet, digital marketing, packaging and other techniques, continue to be the primary focus of food marketing directed at children. Cross-promotions between children’s movies and television characters across all marketing techniques increased to 120 children’s movies and television shows in 2009 from 80 in 2006.
The research also suggested food marketing to children is effective in producing “pester power,” with one company’s research showing food advertisements and packaging were successful in prompting children to ask for a specific food item, and 75% of parents bought a product for the first time because the child asked.
John Feldman, a partner at Reed Smith LLP who represents many major food companies, was unimpressed with the study and the findings.
“The data appears to identify a trend that would indicate there is less money spent on kids’ advertising,” Mr. Feldman said. “The data are old. Shining a light on industry practices suggests there is something nefarious about the practices themselves, which of course the commission believes there is. Once again, it’s policy-making masquerading as exercising enforcement authority under the unfairness branch of Section 5 of the F.T.C. Act.
“Companies should not be led to believe that further compromise and cut back on spending and marketing will satisfy the F.T.C. or the food industry critics. They will not be satisfied until there is a ban on kids’ advertising altogether.”