Food companies snare children in their webs
1st August 2005
Makers of soft drinks, sweets and sugary cereals are designing websites to catch the attention of children barely six or seven years old.
Cheaper than TV advertising, and completely outside the control of the Advertising Standards Authority, commercial websites are enticing youngsters with games and prizes, and encouraging them to send in their names and addresses.
Children may also be asked for email addresses for themselves and their friends. In return for this direct marketing information, the children receive points which get them small gifts, games, software or mobile phone ringtones.
Kinder tell parents their website is ‘backed by tests carried out by a team of psychologists on a representative sample of children of the relevant age brackets’. This may be reassuring to some, but it sounds kind of scary to us. If children wish to play on the site they must use ‘Magicodes’ which are only available by buying Kinder Egg chocolates.
Some websites require food products to be purchased beforehand, so that children can log onto the website with codes from the product wrappers, giving the children access to exclusive parts of the company's website. The companies pushing their products use these subtle and cleverly-designed websites to promote brands such as Nesquik, Frosties, Panda Pops, Chewits, Skittles and Kinder Surprise.
Children usually view these websites on their own or with their friends, without the guiding hand of a teacher or parent to help them unpick the marketing messages or give their approval when the children send their details to the food company.
Techniques such as these, that can entice children to make direct relationships with junk food promoters, would be severely criticised if it occurred on children's television or in children's comics.
That companies can do so freely on the internet says less about the open nature of the internet than it does about the appalling morality of the food companies, which clearly see no problem in undermining parental controls and encouraging unhealthy diets.
Caught in the net?
Websites are one of the best ways to reach children with a marketing message. In comparison to expensive TV advertising, they can be relatively cheap to create. And once they are posted on the internet, they can remain online for months without the repeat fees associated with broadcast advertising. They also have international appeal, with children logging on all over the world to receive information about global brands.
But perhaps the biggest benefit for food companies is that online marketing is subject to none of the voluntary codes of practice governed by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The ASA refuses to rule on complaints submitted in relation to websites. Yet, as our survey shows, food marketing websites targeted at children often use some of the most insidious and manipulative marketing techniques – including dubious health claims and marketing techniques that tell a child they will be more popular and attractive if they purchase certain sweets.
Such techniques would receive public censure were they to appear in the traditional media used for marketing communications. However, when they go online, children are subjected to the excesses of marketing techniques that the ASA (a voluntary body set up by the industry) is meant to control.
It will be no surprise to Food Magazine readers that such marketing is used in support of the least healthy foods. Our survey showed that many such websites are for foods such as sweets, lollies, sugared fizzy drinks, burgers and chips. These are all foods that contribute to the poor quality of children's diets.
Here we show just some of the common techniques used to advertise junky foods to children. More examples are shown online at the Children's Food Bill campaign website – the campaign is in support of new legislation to ensure that children are protected from junk food marketing, to improve the quality of food in school meals and vending machines, and to ensure that children receive food education that supports health and well-being.
Extracting information from children
E-cards: Children are encouraged to send e-cards (electronic postcards) to their friends via email. This is an almost ubiquitous feature of children’s websites. The cards generally display images and logos of products and act as adverts. The e-cards invite the children who receive them to visit the website and join the website club or to play online games.
Surveys: Optional surveys are posted on many websites which extract the personal information of the user, such as their name and address. Free samples or prizes may be offered as a reward.
Registration: Many websites require a child to register before being allowed into exclusive areas of the website, or before being allowed to collect exchangeable points. This process often requires the child to enter their email address and allows the website to be personalised in the child’s name.
Whilst some websites require parental approval for this interaction, we have found it remarkably easy to ‘cheat’ these so-called security features, posing as an eight-year-old, who then continues to receive marketing messages by email.
Getting your message across to non-users of the website
E-cards: Electronic postcards that can be sent to friends (see above).
Recommendations: Users are encouraged to recommend the website to their friends. By telling a friend about the site, collectable points may be awarded to the user, who can then spend them within the website.
Buddy Icons: These are downloadable icons used on MSN Messenger (a widely used online chat service provided by Microsoft). The animated icons will appear on the screen of anyone who ‘chats’ to the user, subtly promoting the product in the process.
Ensuring product purchases
Downloadable ring tones: Nine out of ten UK secondary school children own a mobile phone and many are tempted by the ‘free’ ring tones which can be downloaded from websites. However, the downloads frequently require a product purchase so that ‘codes’ can be obtained to activate the download.
Downloadable software: Children are also encouraged to purchase products in order to obtain a ‘code’ that can then be used to download software. For example, the Bubblicious bubble gum website offers downloadable voice-activated software in which a famous basketball star will ‘obey’ your spoken instructions and open programmes on your computer, but you need to go out and buy the product in order to get the access codes.
Online games: An access code may be required to play online games. For example, the Kinder Egg website requires users to go out and buy a chocolate egg to obtain a Magicode which allows them to play online games and to download games and ‘surprises’.
Each Magicode can only be used once, thus encouraging repeat purchases. An online ‘safe’ is also provided at this site so that users can store unused Magicodes. Users are promised a special surprise if they store five Magicodes (from five purchases) in the safe.
Promotional tie-ins. The website encourages viewers to send in product packets in exchange for merchandise. For example, children who visit the Smarties website can get football stickers in return for Smarties packets.
Games are the mainstay of websites aimed at children. They make the website ‘sticky’ – extending the time a child spends at the site and increasing their exposure to the brand.
The games frequently involve the player collecting images of packets of the product to achieve high scores in order to access the next level of the game or to enter a prize draw. For example, the Nesquik website has a game in which images of packets of Nesquik must be collected from a tree.
The Frosties website (mentioned in FM69) requires users to navigate cartoon athletes to pick up packets of Frosties cereal to boost their energy. Games on the Chewits and Jelly Belly websites involve guiding a character to eat as many sweets as possible to achieve a high score.
Exploiting a child’s insecurities
Just like advertisements aimed at the adult market, children’s brands are marketed to exploit their aspirations and fears. That’s why rules for broadcast advertisements expressly discourage advertisers from saying that children can be more popular or sexy if they buy certain products. But online, anything goes.
The Bubblicious website, for instance, gives the impression that bubble gum can improve the user’s social life. Aimed at a young teenage audience the website uses animated life scenarios that suggest that Bubblicious can have a positive influence on pivotal situations. For example: Bubblicious is influential in a girl saying yes to a boy who asks her out on a date.
The Introductory animation to the Bubblicious website uses a cool musical soundtrack with an overlaid spoken dialogue to suggest that Bubblicious can help the user to B-different, B-brilliant, B-magnetic and B-ready.
We never realised that bubble gum could B-so powerful!
Unregulated health claims
Chupa Chups are a popular brand of lolly with a website packed with dubious information. The website brazenly encourages the user to purchase the lollies because they are 'good for you'. Not only are Chupa Chups described as ‘a tasty way to give your brain a boost!’ (because some contain glucose) but the website also claims that the vitamin C content can: prevent and treat the common cold; fight bacteria and viruses; help speed up the healing of cuts and grazes and help to maintain healthy blood vessels.
That’s quite a series of health claims for a simple lolly, most of which would be banned from print or television advertising.
The latest Star Wars film shows how a popular film can be tied into a brand’s website. At the Skittles sweets website users who have purchased packets of sweets can be rewarded with Star Wars prizes, but only if they find a winning number in the packet. If they don’t find a winning number, and still want to win, they need to buy more Skittles sweets.
Encouraging repeat visits
Marketers use different methods to encourage children and other users to visit brand websites regularly. The Jelly Belly site provides a monthly prize of a hamper containing £150 worth of products. The same site also runs daily competitions in which 100 prizes are given away. We found one website (for American Chiclet sweets) where 100 mobile phone ringtones are given away each day.
The Bubblicious bubble gum website also encourages children to make return visits to check for new e-postcards. The Sour Patch sweets website asks children to check back every month to see what product-related events will be taking place.
Other marketing methods
Direct advertising: Obvious really – almost all websites have a section devoted to advertising their range of products. Some also have a ‘product locator’ so you can find the nearest outlet selling the brand.
Show off your other adverts: Websites provide an excellent opportunity for marketers to repeat their TV, film and magazine adverts, often in downloadable form.
Screensavers and wallpapers: Users are encouraged to download promotional screen-savers and wallpaper for their computers, ensuring everyday exposure to a brand.
Sound and vision: Children know what they like and marketers make sure they provide the goods. Websites are visually stimulating, colourful and lively, with animated sequences, dynamic sounds and music. Websites are often immersive and disorientating, providing a multi-layered experience with many different areas/worlds to explore.
If you see any other websites which you think use manipulative techniques to target children please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org
Survey conducted June 2005. Note that some websites are updated regularly and contents will change.
More examples of website food marketing techniques are shown on the Children’s Food Bill campaign website. http://www.sustainweb.org/childrensfoodcampaign/
Websites visited as part of this research
Apple Jacks at http://www.applejacks.com/promotions/cinnaisland/
Bubbletape at http://www.bubbletape.com/
Bubblicious at http://www.bubblicious.com/index2.html
Burger King at http://www.burgerking.co.uk/indexnoflash.html
Cheestrings at http://www.cheestrings.co.uk/
Chewits at http://www.chewits.co.uk/
Chiclets at http://www.chiclets.com/
Chupa Chups at http://www.chupachupsgroup.com/
Cocopops at http://www.cocopops.co.uk/frameset.asp
Fanta at http://www.fanta.co.uk/
Froot Loops at http://www.frootloops.com/promotions/flultimate_05/Chapter1.html
Fruitshoot at http://www.fruitshoot.com/
Haribo at http://www.haribo.com/planet/uk/
Hubba Bubba at http://www.hubbabubbamax.com/
Hula Hoops at http://www.hulahoops.com/
Jelly Belly at http://www.jellybelly-uk.com/
Kinder at http://www.magic-kinder.com/
Lunchables at http://www.kraftbrands.com/lunchables/index.aspx
McDonalds at http://www.mcdonalds.co.uk/
Nesquik at http://www.nesquik.co.uk/
Panda Pops at http://www.pandapops.com/
Pop Tarts at http://www.poptarts.com/promotions/poptarts/index.html
Pringles at http://www.pringles-info.co.uk/
Original Swedish Fish (candy) at http://www.originalswedishfish.com/
Skittles at http://www.skittles.com/
Smarties at http://www.smarties.co.uk/
Sour Patch Kids at http://www.sourpatchkids.com/
Starburst at http://www.starburst.com/index.jsp
Tango at http://www.tango.tv/tango/index
Original research by Dan Binfield; additional research by Ian Tokelove.
The following pages may also be of interest
- Press: Food companies snare children in their webs
Food marketing websites aimed at children are rife with marketing techniques that would be banned in print and broadcast advertising.