Many food websites are using sophisticated marketing to target and engage children and adolescents to market unhealthy food choices.
A new study, published today in the NZ Medical Journal, analysed the extent and nature of unhealthy food marketing to New Zealand children and adolescents via the internet.
The research from the University of Auckland found that one in three of the 70 food company websites analysed used marketing techniques intended to engage young people.
Marketing techniques seen in the study included education linked advertising (87 percent), viral marketing (64 percent), cookies (54 percent), free downloadable items (43 percent), promotional characters (39 percent), designated children’s sections (19 percent) and advert linked gaming (13 percent).
"These marketing techniques used on food brand websites are very sophisticated and intended to engage children as much as possible with the brands," says researcher Dr Stefanie Vandevijvere, a food policy expert from the University of Auckland.
Most techniques appeared more frequently on websites specifically targeting children and adolescents, than on other websites targeting the general public.
"While the numbers of children visiting food brand websites is not that high, it is still an important mode of advertising which is promoting unhealthy foods," says Dr Vandevijvere. "The extent of food marketing on popular non-food websites was low.
"Some unhealthy food ads on television are seen by more than 25 percent of children in New Zealand every day, but website marketing techniques might be more engaging than for traditional media," she says.
"But regardless of potential exposure, food companies should be pulling down these children’s sections on those websites, if they want to become part of the solution for childhood obesity," says Dr Vandevijvere.
Overall, 33 percent of websites included television advertisements and 34 percent of websites included competitions and/or giveaways. Rebates, such as combo meals, value packs or special discounted items were found on 13 percent of the websites, mainly for fast food restaurants.
In total, 91 advert linked games were identified on food brand websites, ranging from one to 76 games per website.
The majority of advert linked games included features to extend the game (76 percent), such as leader boards- including rank, nickname, best game and total score of all games, the opportunity to post scores publicly, and play again options.
Some games (30 percent), created opportunities to personalise with the character/player in the game. None of the websites with advert linked games specified age restrictions or required parental consent to play the games.
Co-author, Professor Boyd Swinburn says even if one percent of New Zealand children visited these food company websites in a month, "that is 5000 kids per month engaging in a much deeper way and for much longer than a 30-second advert on television.
"It is still a very significant medium for companies because it is relatively cheap and they are creating lifelong friends of the brand," he says. "It is not a trivial impact."
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