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A recent Yale University study has found that popular characters, celebrities, toys and movie giveaways on food packaging are being employed more than ever to market foods to children at the retail level. The study, which appears in the March 2010 issue of Public Health Nutrition, shows significant growth in the use of kid-targeted cross-promotions on food packaging in grocery stores, with such promotions aimed at children and teens increasing by 78 percent from 2006 to 2008. Unfortunately, however, only 18 percent of products looked at met accepted nutrition standards for foods sold to youngsters, according to the study.
Conducted by the Rudd Center for Food Policy at Yale in New Haven, Conn., the study had researchers buy and examine all products bearing cross-promotional packaging in a large supermarket on three occasions from 2006 to 2008, categorizing almost 400 total items by promotional partner, food category, targeted age group, promotion type, product nutrition, and company policies on marketing to children.
Along with the considerable rise in overall youth-oriented cross-promotions, the study found that:
—Nutritional quality of kids’ food items with cross-promotional packaging fell during the period of study
—71 percent of cross-promotions involved licensed characters, with 57 percent of those targeting mainly children under the age of 12
—The use of other types of promotions, including athletes, sporting events, toys and games, leapt from 5 percent of the total in 2006 to 53 percent in 2008
A noteworthy finding of the study was that food manufacturers that have pledged to limit marketing to children in compliance with the Council of Better Business Bureaus’ Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative accounted for 65 percent of all kid-oriented cross-promotions studied. Most of these companies’ pledges don’t apply to marketing to children at the retail level. The research further discovered that while use of cross-promotions at these companies rose significantly, the nutritional quality of their products didn’t improve.
“The marketing of foods with low nutritional value to children in grocery stores should raise as much concern as it does on television or the Internet,” said Jennifer L. Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center. “Foods with promotions targeted at children contained significantly more sugar than foods targeted at other age groups, and companies [that] have pledged to reduce unhealthy marketing to kids are the biggest offenders.”
The study did find progress among some media companies, however, among them Disney and Warner Brothers. Both companies reduced the volume of licensing for child-targeted promotions in supermarkets during the period of study, and nutritional quality of food products with third-party licensed characters overall improved somewhat.