The Messenger Changes Tactics

Some marketers, under fire, begin to pull back on advertising to children

The controversy over kids’ nutrition is being played out on television. Some advertisers have cut spending dramatically in the past year. Others have begun advertising healthier fare.

It may not have been noticeable. In fact, the nearly $480 million spent on food and fast-food–restaurant ads on kids television—cable networks and the broadcasters’ Saturday-morning blocks—was up 3.2% on a year-to-year basis for the nine-month September-May season, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus. But fast-food restaurant spending was essentially flat.

Shelly Hirsch, CEO of Summit Media Group, the media-buying division of production company 4Kids Entertainment, says that, while he hasn’t noticed any dramatic budget cuts for food advertising in 2005, he expects that will change in 2006.

“Fourth quarter is heavily driven by toys and games, so the real impact will be seen early next year,” he says. “The major media companies—Viacom, Warner Bros. and Disney—are hoping that they can develop business in other areas to compensate for the [anticipated] loss of food.”


A handful of food makers are touting new initiatives aimed at reducing the number of messages kids see for unhealthy products. Kraft, for instance, in January announced the creation of a “Sensible Solution” label for its foods that are relatively healthy. The food giant is now advertising only a handful of products on TV shows where kids 6-11 are the primary audience. Beginning next year, Kraft will also limit content on its kid-targeted Web sites to these healthier products.

McDonald’s, accused in a recently revived three-year-old lawsuit that claims its ads played a role in children’s eating fattening foods, will add easy-to-understand nutrition labeling to its packaging.

Soft-drink makers such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi began cutting back advertising to kids years ago, at least for sugar-filled sodas. Meanwhile, such companies as cereal maker General Mills are following guidelines set by Children’s Advertising Review Unit, the ad industry’s self-regulation group that formed in 1974. Like other food makers, General Mills did not comment for this article beyond saying that it follows CARU guidelines.

And while ad spending by food makers was up last season, the increase masks a shift in marketing efforts to reach kids. In general, easy-to-spot unhealthy foods scaled back while healthier products beefed up spending. These changes, however, did not occur across the board.

Ad spending for cookies, for instance, tumbled 95%. Candy was down 19%. And advertising for regular soft drinks tumbled 84%. At the same time, year-to-year ad expenditures for products perceived to be healthier saw explosive growth: Fruit juices, for example, rose from an almost nonexistent $140,000 to $3.3 million. But they still remain a sliver of the total business.

For traditional kids advertisers, the tunes are changing. “We’re seeing about the same [number of] messages as we did the year before, but there is no question that the messaging is different, whether it’s for new or reformulated healthier products in the type of creative our marketing partners are using,” says Jim Perry, senior VP of ad sales for Nickelodeon. The network has been working with advertisers for two years to develop campaigns for healthier kids products.

Advertisers and their agencies are trying to score some points. The Ad Council this month launched a multimedia campaign aimed at preventing childhood obesity, which includes public-service announcements called “Can Your Food Do That?”

Perhaps most indicative of a shift in marketing strategies is that the Federal Trade Commission found that the number of food ads kids see on television each day fell from 18 in 1977 to 13 today.

Susan Linn, co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a public-interest group made up of health-care professionals, says that the marketing tweaks are not adequate to counter the increasing incidence of childhood obesity.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 16% of people 6-19 are overweight.

She says food marketing to kids is escalating despite this long-term decline in television ads, asserting that advertisers are simply shifting from traditional ads to product placement in and licensing deals with movies, videogames and television shows popular with kids, such as Fox’s American Idol, where Coke is a major sponsor.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood wants the FTC to regulate advertising geared to kids, saying the ad industry’s self-regulation has failed.

“We believe it is the government, not corporations, whose obligation it is to be guardians of public health,” says Linn. “The food industry is acting a lot like the tobacco industry in the 1990s. They are only making surface changes.”