The 21st century gingerbread house

Like many city kids his age who must take various buses and streetcars to school, my older son has a cell phone with a modest plan he uses mostly for texting. This month when I opened the bill, there was an extra $13 tagged onto it. I immediately asked him what that was all about (we’ve agreed any  charges on top of the basic bill are his responsibility) but he had no idea. The cell service was more certain. Seems he inadvertently enlisted himself in some “subscription” by downloading what he was told was free music.

My son is a pretty savvy kid. He’s knows his way around technology, too, but, like most of us, didn’t read the fine print.

I thought of this devious marketing trick (and my son’s bewilderment) as I read a fascinating report put out jointly by The Children’s Food Campaign (part of Sustain UK) and the British Heart Foundation called “The 21st century gingerbread house: how companies are marketing junk food to children online” (available for free download—no hidden subscription fees involved!).

Researchers conducted content analysis of 100 food brand product websites in the UK, and discovered that food companies have come up with a huge variety of techniques to promote junk food to kids.  TV advertising has long been regulated to ensure kids aren’t getting sold crap food every two seconds, but the internet remains the wild west, with vague regulations that marketers have easily eluded.

Using cartoons, animations, brand characters, competitions, promotions (free stuff—no kid can resist free stuff), games, quizzes, free downloads, etc. these companies are building brand loyalty one 10 year old at a time.

Of course, schools and parents have a key role in helping educate their children about how to be smart consumers (of both websites and junk food), but this is very insidious stuff—it’s not easy to identify some of these sites as advertising. (Not unlike my son thinking he was simply downloading free music but instead passively “signing up” for some expensive subscription.)  With a diet-related health crisis on our hands, there’s no question we need stronger regulations of junk food marketing (wherever it occurs) in order to support kids to make good choices.

As Charlie Powell, Campaigns Director for the Children’s Food Campaign writes: “…research has now shown that the marketing of unhealthy foods to children influences not only which brands they choose, but the overall balance of their diet. Unsurprisingly, it encourages children to eat energy-dense fatty, sugary or salty foods rather than more nutritious options. If marketing didn’t work, the food industry wouldn’t devote multi-million pound budgets to developing slick campaigns to spread their messages.”

Check out also Sustain’s “Dodgiest junk food marketing claims” of 2011. A public poll determined that Chupa Chups’ suggestion that its yellow lollipops were made with only real lemon juice was the most egregious marketing claim. Seems there’s only 3 per cent real fruit in the suckers.

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