How Food Companies Market to Children Online

Keeping children eating healthy foods is one of the most important things one can do as a parent.  And one of the most difficult.  It’s probably no surprise that most food companies market directly to children, spending $1.6 billion a year to do so.  In fact, in 2006 the Institute of Medicine concluded that food marketing is a contributor to America’s problem with childhood obesity.  Research indicates that the average preschool child sees 3 ads for fast foods a day, and that is just on television!  These days, food marketing is integrated into story content and onto their favorites games and websites.  Many food companies start virtual sites and integrate their ads into the content of the games.  My daughter, for example, got very excited about Millsberry a few years ago, a site owned by General Mills!  Check it out here and you will see that the only reference to the developer of the site is “Mills online,”  yet they ask kids to check out new sites for Lucky Charms, Fruit Gushers and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
A study of the websites for top food and beverage brands(Weber, Story & Harnack, 2006)  found that 63% of the sites have “advergaming,” and more than half had children’s areas with cartoon spokespeople.  These are the sites that are for adults to find out more about the brand, yet they contain content designed to directly engage your children and create loyal brand consumers.

Even websites that are not owned by a food brand contain food marketing.  Alvy and Calvert (2008) found that 7 of the top 10 sites, favorite sites of children 8-11, contained food marketing of products like candy, cereal, quick serve restaurants and snacks.  A site called Candystand (guess the name gives it away) was the most egregious but others such as and also featured advergames, product placement and more.  The sites used the same techniques that are used in TV advertising such as repetition, bright colors, cartoon spokespeople and more.

In 2009, Pempack and Calvert decided to see how this kind of marketing affects children’s eating habits and moreover if marketing healthier snacks would influence children.  The subjects were low income African American kids age 9-10 in an area that has a higher rate of obese and overweight children than other areas of the country.   Indeed, each group was influenced by the marketing — those that played advergames for unhealthy food wanted that kind of food (soda and chips) and those that played the games that featured bananas and orange juice preferred that snack.  And they only played FOR TEN MINUTES!

So next time your kid comes home and wants to play on a site, try to figure out who its owner is before you let them play “innocent” games.  A good resource is Common Sense Media – they rate websites and give you plenty of insider information.

First posted on Parenting in the Digital Age