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Food company 'adver-games' target children with apps, websites

December 5, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Food advertising is everywhere, with the most powerful marketing often aimed at kids. The latest avenue to reach children is through video games. Some health and government agencies are seeking to change this.

Using touchscreen tablets and mobile devices, Aimee Yoon's children swirl slushy drinks, jiggle gelatin snacks, and flick lollipops.

"I think as long as the game is engaging to them, then they're kind of hooked and want to keep playing it," said Yoon.

Yoon's kids are part an estimated 1.2 million children who play "adver-games," branded, interactive games designed to market products and available via apps and websites. They typically tout cereals, candy and fast food.

Health experts are concerned.

"When children played the unhealthy adver-games they ate about 50 percent more snack food immediately afterwards than kids who didn't play those games," said Dr. Jennifer Harris, Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Currently the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) does not have the authority to regulate marketing food to children. It can only recommend companies advertise foods that meet "meaningful nutrition standards."

The problem?

"The government doesn't define meaningful nutrition standards. Right now it's up to each individual company to decide what that is," said Mary Engle, director of the FTC Division of Advertising Practices.

And that definition varies, which worries many experts. The FTC, along with the FDA, USDA, and Centers for Disease Control, have drafted voluntary food marketing guidelines for children, but the push lost steam in Congress.

Although the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), made up of 16 major food companies, has pledged to market healthier foods to children.

"With less sugar, less sodium, less fat, fewer calories and more of the good stuff: fruits and vegetables and whole grains and fiber," said Elaine Kolish, CFBAI vice president and director.

Still, some companies claim their adver-games are meant for older teens and adults, so they're free from those guidelines.

"Our job is not to tell parents how to parent, or tell them what media or what apps or websites their children should watch or engage with," said Kolish.

Yale's Dr. Harris is pushing for stronger self-regulation.

"They need to admit that these games are very popular with children and they're having an impact," said Harris.


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