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Behind the Shady World of Marketing Junk Food to Children

Marketers spend billions attracting kids to junk food they hope will become a lifelong brand attachment. But the effect on kids' health can be costly.

Seven-year-old Marley loves Happy Meals from McDonald's. She used to get Chicken McNuggets, but now she chooses a cheeseburger to go with her fries and Sprite. Her father, Patrick, is a chef, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, but Marley prefers McDonald's to his cooking. After a trip to McDonald's, Marley eagerly surfs onto, where she can enter a code from her meal to get a "behind-the-scenes look at iCarly," a kids' TV show (boys can use their code for a Star Wars promotion).

Patrick pulled the plug on his television a few months ago, in part to shield his two young daughters from advertising, but the McDonald's marketing execs have reached Marley all the same. Because he's health- and environmentally-conscious, Patrick does not take her to McDonald's often, but after a long day of school and extra-curricular activities, sometimes a little nagging is all it takes for Marley to convince her dad that she's hungry now and only food served at a drive-thru will do.

Marley and Patrick are normal, apart from his cooking skills and their home's lack of TV. Approximately one out of three fast food trips occur due to a child's nagging -- a fact that does not elude junk food marketers, who advertise to kids with the very goal of getting kids to nag their parents for the advertised product. It's not by accident that foods marketed to children come with toys or in boxes plastered with popular cartoon characters, located strategically at children's eye level. And today's generation is the target of more marketing and more types of marketing than their parents, who didn't grow up with the Internet, iPods or cell phones.

Instead of TV commercials that can be ignored or muted, marketers now know how to create promotional content that viewers pay more attention to. For example, a Kraft Web site challenges consumers to "send a custom video to your friends to show how much you love KD [Kraft Dinner]." And just in case no one has sent you such a video, you can waste hours viewing the "Gallery" of videos submitted by others. Kids today can log onto numerous commercial Web sites and create avatars, play with virtual pets and interact with their favorite movie, comic book and TV characters.

On the McDonald's site alone, they can connect with their friends, enter contests, download coupons for McDonald's products, play interactive games and provide McDonald's with valuable market research by saving their favorite activities in a customized profile and even voting on the name of new products or marketing tools. With mobile applications, kids can take their virtual world with them wherever they go.

Yet children Marley's age (up to about age 8) do not understand advertising's persuasive intent, and very young children cannot even distinguish between commercials and program content, according to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Even after a child can understand an ad's intent, he or she still might lack the judgment to determine the consequences of buying the product, and the ad still undermines the judgment of his or her parents by appealing directly to the kid. So why is marketing to kids allowed at all?

The U.S. government is currently looking at food marketing to children. Food isn't the only product marketed to kids, but food marketing is under more scrutiny than other marketing as politicians, health care providers and others look to uncover the causes of the current childhood obesity epidemic. In 2006, food companies spent $1.6 billion marketing products -- mostly soda, fast food and cereal -- to kids. That same year, fast food restaurants sold more than 1.2 billion kids' meals with toys.

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