Marketing food to kids online

Food manufacturers are increasingly turning to hi-tech ways of serving up junk food advertising to your kids.

Child eating burger

Food manufacturers are increasingly turning to hi-tech ways of serving up junk food advertising to your kids.

Long gone are the days when a food company would appeal to kids by slapping a colourful cartoon animal on the packaging. The new tricks of the trade are virtual reality apps, video clips of your favourite sports team or athlete associating with a fast food chain, and fast-paced online games.

Chupa Chups, for example, has “advergames’’ (where the product is part of the game) on its app. Kids can help the Chupa Chups mascot Chuck collect sweets and avoid space rocks in its Chuck Space Walk game.

Nestle’s Milo Champ Squad app offers to teach your child netball, football and cricket skills, with each sport fronted by a high-profile athlete such as Maria Folau. There are videos to watch, or you can join in with each coach’s animated avatar. There’s a catch though – you need to scan a Milo product before you can view the skills!

If that hasn’t put you off, your next step is buying a Milo Champions band ($45). This lets your child track their steps and number of kilojoules they’ve burned. It syncs with the app so they can get virtual rewards, challenge their friends and parents can calculate their energy intake (see “Milo Champions Band”).

Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain also has a virtual reality app – NG Bolt. The app gives you a 3D experience such as extreme mountain biking or skydiving. You need a virtual reality headset to use the app, although when it launched in 2015, specially marked Nutri-Grain boxes could be made into a headset, and included special lenses.

Some companies have a children’s page on their websites. The McDonald’s website says “the fun doesn’t stop when you leave our restaurants”. On its activities page you can download character crowns, door hangers and photo frames adorned with the McDonald’s mascots. Your child can spend time colouring in the scenes and have the McDonald’s reminder at home.

Hooking them early

Children are a lucrative market for food companies to target. Not only do they spend their own money, they influence what their parents buy (pester power). Marketers taking a long-term view are also banking on young shoppers hanging on to these shopping preferences. The more they use a particular product, the greater the chance of them sticking to buying habits they acquired when they were young.

Kids are spending more time online. A 2014 Colmar Brunton study assessed Kiwi kids’ media use and found two-thirds of six- to 14-year-olds used the internet every day and 90% used it at least sometimes. With tablets and smartphones increasingly becoming part of children’s daily lives, digital marketing can be easily accessed.

Digital marketing by companies selling unhealthy food and drinks has public health experts concerned.

A study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal in 2017 looked at the marketing of food to children and adolescents through the internet. The study looked at 110 of the most popular websites among six- to 17-year-olds, and 70 food and beverage websites that market to children.

The frequency of food marketing tactics on non-food websites was low, but it was a different story for the food and beverage websites. Techniques included “advercation” – a combination of advertising and education (87% of websites), viral marketing (64%), cookies to track and record activities (54%), free downloadable items (43%), promotional characters (39%), designated children’s sections (19%) and advergaming (13%).

Study author Dr Stefanie Vandevijvere, from the University of Auckland, said advergaming is particularly concerning because it engages children for an extended period and has been shown to increase their preference for an advertised food product. “In total, 91 advergames were identified on food websites, ranging from one to 76 games per website. None of the websites with advergames specified an age restriction or required parental consent,” Dr Vandevijvere said.

Studies in Australia, Ireland, the UK and the USA found parents were largely unaware of the online marketing strategies used by food companies. Those who were assumed it wasn’t a concern because kids would ignore what they saw. However, once they were shown the tactics used, they often considered it exploitative and wanted something done about it. It’s likely to be a similar situation in New Zealand, with the Colmar Brunton study finding 85% of six- to 14-year-olds finding content completely or mostly by themselves.

Does it matter?

The World Health Organization (WHO) says there’s evidence the marketing of unhealthy food and drink is linked to obesity. And when it comes to childhood obesity, we're losing the battle of the bulge.

WHO’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity said the targeted and personalised nature of digital marketing made it a powerful influence on children.

The 2016/17 New Zealand Health Survey found 21% of children aged between two- to 14-years-old were overweight. A further 12% were obese (an increase of 4% since 2006/07). Maori and Pacific children, as well as children from areas of high deprivation, have even higher obesity rates.

Being overweight can lead to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, and mental health issues. An unhealthy diet high in sugary foods and drinks can also increase the risk of tooth decay.

WHO’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity recommends reducing children’s exposure to all marketing – including online marketing.

Its 2016 Tackling food marketing to children in a digital world report said the targeted and personalised nature of digital marketing made it a powerful influence on children, and it was a concern that digital media collected extensive personal data to further target marketing.

Some websites use cookies, which are small files that track and record your activities. Cookies can store passwords, keep track of online purchases and estimate user traffic to a site. Some websites allow third parties to collect information, which can be used for targeting marketing.

Geo-location maps, often used by fast food companies, pinpoint your location so you can receive location-specific ads and promotions.

Dr Michael Hale, spokesperson for Healthy Auckland Together (a coalition of 26 health, community, academic and local government organisations), said digital marketing can be more insidious than traditional marketing. “It can target susceptible children depending on their search history, amplify the power of other marketing, and promote products with immersive, engaging and entertaining content,” he said.

Time to regulate

Little is being done to regulate these types of marketing in New Zealand, and public health and medical experts say this has to change.

Marketing here is mainly self-regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which is industry-funded to create voluntary codes of practice and hear complaints about advertising.

Last year, the ASA toughened up its advertising codes. Its new Children and Young People’s Advertising Code has restrictions on marketing unhealthy food and drinks, especially to children younger than 14 years. But critics say it doesn’t go far enough.

You’ll still see Super Rugby players in KFC “for the fans” videos as long as they aren’t eating fried chicken and chips.

Dr Hale said public health groups agree that a child should be defined as under 18 years, consistent with the United Nation’s definition. “For children aged 14 to 18 years, the code recommends ‘a special duty of care be taken’ so it provides less protection for this group,” he said.

Although the code covers all advertising in any medium (which includes digital marketing), we’re concerned self-regulation won’t keep up with the sophisticated digital marketing we’re seeing by global brands.

The code also has a section on sponsorship, which says an ad must not show an unhealthy food or drink. However, brands can still sponsor teams or events. This means you’ll still see Super Rugby players in KFC “for the fans” videos as long as they aren’t eating fried chicken and chips.

There’s also concern our self-regulatory system lacks independent vetting of ads, as well as monitoring and evaluation of the code. In line with WHO recommendations, we think it’s time the government regulated food and drink marketing to children and ensured regulation kept pace with online food marketing tactics.

Milo Champions Band

Kids love their Saturday footy and my six-year-old is no exception. For 30 minutes her team battles it out, hoping for a win but not too bothered either way – it’s all about participation right? Until the end of the match when the esteemed Player of the Day is announced and all eyes are glued to the coach in anticipation.

This year Nestle is getting in on the action, sponsoring “Milo Committed Player of the Month”. Each “Milo champion” gets a free product sample and a brochure about joining the “Champ squad”.

The Milo Champions Band ($45) tracks the number of steps your child takes, the distance covered and how many kilojoules they’ve burned.

The brochure said we could learn new football skills, compete in activities and challenges with friends, and track activity to gain “champ points” by downloading the free Milo champ app.

Although the app is free, you need to buy the Milo Champions Band ($45) to be able to use all the features (the band comes with a pack of Milo too which you can scan to unlock the features). The band is designed for kids six- to 12-years-old and syncs to the app. You input your child’s personal details – age, weight and height – and you’re good to go.

The band tracks the number of steps your child takes, the distance covered and how many kilojoules they’ve burned. There’s a pin-protected parents’ section on the app where you add what your child has eaten for the day and this calculates their energy intake and gives a breakdown of the nutrients such as protein, iron and calcium. It then tells you whether they’re in “energy balance” or not and if they should be eating more fibre or fruit and vege.

Feeling uncomfortable about my child trying to achieve “energy balance”, I asked Dr Lisa Te Morenga from the Victoria University School of Health what she thought.

“These are relatively new technologies and the impact on children hasn’t been studied extensively. But fitness and calorie trackers are associated with increased risk of disordered eating behaviours in adolescents and adults. There’s also an increasing prevalence of eating disorders amongst younger children,” she said.

Dr Te Morenga also said this type of product could increase body anxiety and help create a belief that body weight is a simple matter of personal responsibility. “This of course is the narrative that the food industry promotes as a way of abdicating any responsibility in the fight against obesity.”

Not just kids

It’s not just children targeted by food and beverage companies. Teenagers and adults are bombarded by digital food marketing tactics too.

Download the McDonald’s app and you’ll get member deals, a heads-up on new products and unlimited WiFi access in the restaurant. With the Burger King app you can unlock coupons and earn reward points for every dollar you spend. The MyCoke app lets you collect points for each marked Coke product you buy, and you'll go in the draw to win prizes such as an “Epic MyCoke” trip to Vegas.

You don’t need to look far to see food companies sponsoring sporting heroes. Company Facebook pages and YouTube channels are the perfect spot to hammer home the association and post videos.

The MyCoke app lets you collect points for each marked Coke product you buy

Powerade teams up with Steven Adams. According to its video clip, Adams is a “game-changer” just like Powerade. Burger King sponsors the Black Caps. In its Facebook video starring Martin Guptill and other big hitters, it promotes its deal: if the Black Caps hit nine sixes in the match you get a “buy one, get one free” deal the next day.

A study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal in 2018 looked at the extent, nature and potential impact of these marketing activities. The study tracked two months of Facebook activity of 45 food and beverage companies, and two years of YouTube posts from 15 brands.

Two-thirds of the Facebook posts contained at least one unhealthy food, and promotional strategies were used in 41% of posts, often with a famous sportsperson or team. Premium offers and competitions were also frequently used. To get maximum exposure, nearly every brand asked followers to like, comment, tag and share their posts.

It was a similar scenario for the YouTube channels. The 15 brands posted about 300 videos and more than 84% contained food marketing, the majority of which was for unhealthy food.

Member comments

Get access to comment