- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) — Marketing food and drinks to children these days occurs with more than just a few TV ads. It involves promotional displays at grocery stores and packaging that directs them to Web sites where they can play games, win prizes or send e-cards to a friend.

In all, the nation’s largest food and beverage companies spent about $1.6 billion in 2006 marketing their products to children, according to a Federal Trade Commission report released Tuesday.

About $200 million of that went to cross-promotional campaigns designed to provide children and teens with repeated product exposure across several venues. For example, some 80 films, TV shows and video games were also used to promote food and beverages to children and teens, the FTC found.

The commission’s report stems from lawmakers’ concern about growing obesity rates in children. It gives researchers new insight into how much companies are spending to attract youth to their products, and what venues the companies are using for their marketing. To come up with its estimate, the FTC used confidential financial data that it required the companies to provide.

Overall, the spending was much less than some previous estimates had indicated. Still, it represents a large pot of money that is being used to entice children to foods that are often unhealthy choices, said Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, who sought the study.

“This study confirms what I have been saying for years,” Mr. Harkin said. “Industry needs to step up to the plate and use their innovation and creativity to market healthy foods to our kids. That $1.6 billion could be used to attract our kids to healthy snacks, tasty cereals, fruits and vegetables.”

The commission studied spending directed at children ages 2 to 17. Spending on soda marketing came to $492 million, with the vast majority of that spending directed toward adolescents. Fast-food restaurants reported spending close to $294 million, which was divided about evenly between children and adolescents. For cereals, companies spent about $237 million, with the vast majority of that targeted to children under age 12.

Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University, said it’s clear that marketing has adjusted for how children spend more time these days - on the computer and on their cell phones. Regulators are struggling to keep up, she said.

“On the Internet, it’s virtually an unregulated media environment and one that’s hard for people to keep track of,” Miss Montgomery said.

As a result, the messages that companies use for television ads may differ from what they use in the digital media, she said.

“Parents who are concerned about their children’s eating habits have to understand that you can’t just look at what’s happening on television. That’s not the way it is anymore. It’s a pervasive marketing environment,” Miss Montgomery said.

The commission noted that its review came during a year in which food and beverage companies had committed to curtailing the marketing of unhealthy products.

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