Fox Guards Henhouse Part 2: Food Marketers Using Online Media to Bypass Parents, Reach More Kids

A few months ago I told you about a voluntary scheme created by the Council for Better Business Bureaus under which major food manufacturers promise to either devote 100% of their child-directed advertising to “better-for-you” foods, or to not engage in such advertising at all.  (“Fox Guards Henhouse: Industry’s ‘Self-Regulation’ of Children’s Food Advertising“)   This “Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative” (CFBAI) sounds great on paper, but then I showed you some of the “better-for-you” foods that pass muster under the program:  everything from Kool-Aid Singles to Lunchables Chicken Dunks to Post Cupcake Pebbles cereal. (Here’s the entire “Better-for-You Product List” to get you really outraged.)

lunchablechickendunks KoolAidsinglescupcakepebblesjpg

Well, according to a front page story in today’s New York Times, food marketers are now relying more and more on the use of interactive computer games, online quizzes and surveys, cellphone apps and social media to reach children, eager to influence kids’ impact on an estimated $100 billion in food and beverage purchases — while bypassing most parental oversight.

The Times story notes that the products most often promoted in these new media are usually the very worst of the “Better for You” list. Moreover, reaching kids through online media is even more insidious than doing so via television or print advertising, because kids often fail to understand that these games and apps are advertisements, and they often become unwitting marketers for the food companies when they promote the games and products to their own peers via Facebook.

Elaine Kolish, the director of the CBFAI, claims in the Times story that the voluntary initiative is still effective in the online world, noting that some participating companies have recently changed the focus of websites for products like Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts and Pepsi’s Cap’n Crunch “to focus on adults.”  Curious, I visited the Pop-Tarts site and sure enough, it does claim to be directed at “moms” (right down to its URL —  But is there anything about  this memory matching game on the site, for example, that’s mom-specific?  Meanwhile, Kellogg’s continues to overtly market its Apple Jacks cereal (hardly better than Pop-Tarts, nutritionally) directly to kids, with this game-filled site.

As Kelly Brownell, Director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, wryly noted in the article:

Perfect compliance with an awful standard takes you down a bad road.

In my winning essay for the Slate anti-childhood obesity Hive, I argued that we are never going to get anywhere if we continue to let the fox guard the henhouse.  Federal legislation is sorely needed to rein in food marketers seeking to reach children, and I was encouraged to read in the Times story that the FTC will be issuing a report this summer on this very issue.

Maybe that report, coming from an Obama administration FTC, will move us in the right direction. I’ll keep you posted here.



  1. says

    My wife and daughter (3 yrs) were in Target the other day and my daughter stopped them at an end cap with Cheetos displayed and asked, “Mommy, can we get those?” Then she did the same thing with Funyuns. My wife asks me frustrated – “How does a 3-year old know to ask for all that crap?! She’s never even been exposed to any of that!”

    My reply – “It’s not the 3-year old who knows to ask for it. It’s the marketers who know how to get the 3-year old to ask for it. Get rid of Chester Cheetah and pull the food coloring out of the Cheeto (rendering it a dull gray puff), and I guarantee she’s not asking for it.”

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      It’s really fascinating to me, Justin, how the tiniest kids clue into this stuff so early. I’m still mystified that my then two-year old, who would RUN from any green vegetable, would know instinctively, without anyone telling him what it was, that green candy was A-OK. And the allure of the cartoon animal is also intense, as you say.


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