Digital Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents

Problematic Practices and Policy Interventions

A report released in October 2011 provides a detailed look at the expansion of online and social media marketing techniques used by the food and beverage industry. The report looks at the sophisticated, multidimensional ways companies are reaching adolescents through a variety of social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, online games, and mobile communications. It also examines new marketing techniques that are specifically designed to bypass rational decision-making on the part of consumers.

The report finds that online advertising spending by the food and beverage industry will reach approximately $31 billion in 2011. While this constitutes only 20 percent of the $154 billion in overall advertising expenditures expected for the year, the numbers are growing steadily. In 2010, for instance, U.S. Internet users received a total of 4.9 trillion display ads, an increase of nearly 25 percent over 2009. Leading food and beverage companies have seen double- and, in some cases, triple-digit growth in digital marketing budgets.

The first half of the report provides a comprehensive analysis of companies’ digital marketing strategies and tactics. The second half take a close look at four case studies that are emblematic of the new online marketing world. The final section discusses the need for a fair marketing framework that takes into account the health, privacy, and protection of children and adolescents – particularly in light of the childhood obesity epidemic.

The report, called “Digital Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents: Problematic Practices and Policy Interventions,” was produced by the National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN) with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.