Parents have long felt outgunned when battling the food industry for the hearts and minds of their children. Whenever they try to limit exposure to advertisements on TV, the Internet and in supermarkets, marketers have already found new ways to interact with their youngest customers.
The latest frontier is ads on smartphones and tablets. New technologies allow companies to directly reach children by placing their products in games and other displays designed for touch-screen devices.
This is an especially fertile ground. Mobile apps are extremely popular with young kids as well as teenagers and so far, they are completely unregulated.
"The mobile games demonstrate how new technology is changing U.S. commerce, drawing tighter bonds between marketers and young consumers," writes Anton Troianovski in an article for the Wall Street Journal.
This provides many new opportunities for food companies that have long been pressured by government agencies and advocacy groups to limit their advertising efforts aimed at children. "If [kids] have their phone with them, they can be playing these games that are basically advertisements in school and basically 24/7," warned Jennifer Harris of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity in an interview for the article.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has made a number of attempts to impose more regulations on advertisers who target underage audiences but has never been able to get beyond issuing a few "voluntary guidelines." In its latest initiative, the agency hopes to at least "shine some light" on current industry practices. It is unclear what that will entail.
Past proposals for regulatory measures have been rejected by Congress as too strict or burdensome, and several government agencies have eventually dropped their combined efforts to tighten control. Still, over a dozen major food companies, among them McDonald's, Burger King, Mars Inc. and Kraft, have committed themselves to promoting more healthy foods to children, a somewhat vague but welcome step in the right direction. However, product placements on apps are not affected by this agreement.
Other increasingly common approaches marketers take are so-called cross-promotions where foods and beverages are simultaneously tied to movies, TV shows, product packaging, the Internet and in-store displays. According to one report by the FTC, film characters like Superman or Pirates of the Caribbean reappear in video games (a.k.a. "advergames") and free downloads (a.k.a. "Webisodes") from websites. The agency has recently asked media and entertainment companies to be more discriminatory when licensing such characters and to restrict campaigns to healthier foods and beverages when they are directed towards children. Again, there are no mandatory rules in any of these matters.
What concerns me most about these new technologies and their ability to help reach children by bypassing parental supervision is just that. Parents are supposed to be gatekeepers who protect their children from outside influences, at least in the early stages of their lives.
You may say it is still up to the adults to decide what foods are being bought and served in the home. But companies know very well about the "nag factor" and how persuasive children can be in their demands. They know that snack foods and candy are widely used as pacifiers to stave off temper tantrums. They know that their youngest targets are unable to distinguish between advertising and truth-telling, and that they can easily be manipulated. As I said before, parents find themselves routinely outgunned against this onslaught.
It would be naïve to think we can completely control the impact of new technologies on our lives and how they will be used. But that still does not absolve us from acting responsibly, especially on behalf of our children. It's a battle worth fighting.