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Cereal Companies Leverage Online Marketing to Target Children, BMSG/Yale Study Reports

February 20, 2013

Berkeley, CA -- Cereal companies, the third biggest food marketer to children, are using sophisticated online marketing techniques to target kids with unhealthy products and get them to engage with brands in ways not possible through television advertising, found a study published this week in the Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives.

The study authors, researchers from the Public Health Institute's Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, identified 17 branded cereal websites (containing 452 unique web pages) between October 2008 and March 2009 that targeted children. Most of these sites marketed cereals high in sugar and low in nutrition. And the less nutritious the cereal, the more likely it was to be marketed to kids.

At a time when childhood obesity and related health problems are high, and youth engagement with online media is growing -- nearly 10 percent of those in the U.S. who are active on the Internet are between ages 2 and 11 -- these findings have significant implications for public health.

"Our research demonstrates the effectiveness of digital media as a vehicle to market unhealthy foods like sugary cereals to children," said the study's lead author, Andrew Cheyne. "We found that sugary cereal websites with the most interactive features engaged children for longer periods of time and inspired children to return to the sites more often than sites with little interactive content."

Such online marketing targeted at kids is minimally regulated. Unlike with television commercials, which the Federal Communications Commission restricts to 12 minutes per hour, there is no limit to online ad exposure. Instead of seeing 30-seconds of advertising at a time, children often stay online, interacting with brands for hours.

Cereal companies use a variety of multimedia features including games and advergames (found on 82% of sites), online video (found on 10% of pages across the sites), and "immersive environments" to keep children on their websites. They also use viral marketing techniques to turn kids themselves into marketers, encouraging children to invite their friends to join them online.

"These techniques are problematic because the young children they are targeting don't understand the persuasive intent of advertising," said study author Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. "When cereal companies integrate these marketing techniques throughout their websites, it blurs the line between entertainment and advertising, making it even harder for kids to resist this type of marketing."

The study also found that cereal marketers have been able to track children's online behavior and collect personal information about them (often without parents' awareness) using website cookies and online registration forms. Recent updates to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act expand safeguards against these practices.

Additional research is needed to assess how aware children are of the promotional intent of cereal companies' online engagement techniques and how exposure to these techniques affect children's requests and preferences for certain foods.

Article citation: Andrew D. Cheyne, Lori Dorfman, Eliana Bukofzer & Jennifer L. Harris (2013): Marketing Sugary Cereals to Children in the Digital Age: A Content Analysis of 17 Child-Targeted Websites, Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives, DOI:10.1080/10810730.2012.743622

Article link: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10810730.2012.743622


About Berkeley Media Studies Group
Berkeley Media Studies Group researches the way public health issues are characterized in the media and helps community groups, journalists and advocates use the media to advance healthy public policy. BMSG is a project of the Public Health Institute. For more information, visit bmsg.org.

About Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity
The Rudd Center seeks to improve the world's diet, prevent obesity, and reduce weight stigma by establishing creative connections between science and public policy, developing targeted research, encouraging frank dialogue among key constituents, and expressing a dedicated commitment to real change. For more information, visit yaleruddcenter.org.

Andrew Cheyne
Berkeley Media Studies Group

Heather Gehlert
Berkeley Media Studies Group
510-704-3471, gehlert@bmsg.org