Multinational Monitor

JUL/AUG 2008
VOL 30 No. 1


No Escape: Marketing to Kids in the Digital Age
by Jeff Chester and Kathryn Montgomery

The Youngest Market: Baby Food Peddlers Undermine Breastfeeding
by Annelies Allain and Joo Kean

Intoxicating Brands: Alcohol Advertising and Youth
by David Jernigan

How Things Work: The FTC's Revolving Door
by Robert Weissman

Fighting Demons: Addressing the Perils of Financial Innovation
by Richard Bookstaber


Commercializing Childhood: The Corporate Takeover of Kids' Lives
an interview with Susan Linn

Pill Pushers: Pharmaceutical Marketing in an Overmedicated Nation
an interview with Melody Petersen

Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping
an interview with Bill Talen

The Debt Creators: Shady Lending, Misleading Marketing and Hard Times
an interview with José García


Letters to the Editor

Behind the Lines

Marketing Mania, Commercial Colonization

The Front
Freedom Flows in South Africa | Development and the Desert

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Greed At a Glance

Commercial Alert

Names In the News


No Escape:
Marketing to Kids in the Digital Age

by Jeff Chester and Katbryn Montgomery

With the proliferation of media in children’s lives, marketing now extends far beyond the confines of television and even the Internet, into an expanding and ubiquitous digital media culture. The new “marketing ecosystem” encompasses cell phones, mobile music devices, instant messaging, videogames and virtual, three-dimensional worlds. New marketing practices in these diverse media environments are fundamentally transforming how corporations — notably including food and beverage companies — sell to young people.

The influx of brands into social networking platforms — where they now have their own “profiles” and networks of “friends” — is emblematic of the many ways in which contemporary marketing has all but obliterated the boundaries between advertising and editorial content. The unprecedented ability of digital technologies to track and profile individuals across the media landscape, and engage in “micro” or “nano” targeting, raises the twin specters of manipulation and invasion of privacy. The growing use of neuropsychological research suggests that digital marketing will increasingly be designed to foster emotional and unconscious choices, rather than reasoned, thoughtful decision making. The prospect of armies of avatars (virtual people), deployed as brand “salespersons” and programmed to react to the subtlest cues from other online inhabitants, suggests a disturbing move into uncharted territory for consumer-business relationships.

A number of these practices may be inherently exploitive and unfair, or even deceptive. For adults, they are problematic enough. For children and teens, they pose even greater risks. When used to promote certain food products, the aggregation of these new marketing tactics could worsen the childhood obesity epidemic, which is already contributing to rising rates of heart and circulatory illnesses, depression and other mental illnesses, respiratory problems, and Type II diabetes, a disease that used to strike only adults.

Mobile Marketing

Cell phones are one of the most important digital platforms for marketing to young people, enabling companies to directly target users based on previous buying history, location and other profiling data. As the practice grows, mobile users will increasingly be sent personally tailored electronic pitches, designed to trigger immediate purchases and timed to reach them when they are near particular stores and restaurants.

McDonald’s McFlurry mobile marketing campaign was designed to “create a compelling way to connect with the younger demographic.” Six hundred McDonald’s restaurants in California urged young cell phone users to text-message to a special phone number to receive an instant electronic coupon for a free McFlurry dessert. Youth were encouraged to “download free cell phone wallpaper and ring tones featuring top artists,” and to email the promotional website link to their friends. Ads on buses, billboards, “wild postings” near high schools, and even skywriting airplanes promoted the “Text McFlurry 73260” message.

The Kellogg Company printed Web addresses on more than 6.5 million of its Kellogg’s Corn Pops cereal packages. When customers go onto the “Gotta be Connected” webpage, they are run through a series of pop-up messages that capture personal information, along with cell phone data, including the phone number. Within days, Kellogg sends a text message with a trivia question. Those who answer the question correctly receive a free Corn Pops screensaver, as well as a chance to win additional prizes, including “pre-paid airtime, a free phone or other prizes.”
Behavioral Profiling

Database marketing has become a core strategy for companies targeting teens, and a linchpin of many digital media campaigns — not only on the Internet, but also on cell phones, video games and other new platforms. Marketers can compile a detailed profile of each customer, including demographic data, purchasing behavior, responses to advertising messages, and even the extent and nature of social networks. Marketers use the information to create messages tailored to the psychographic and behavioral patterns of the individual.

The “growth and health of our database marketing efforts have been a secret weapon for us to jump-start programs and have a continuous dialogue with our best consumers,” John Vail, Pepsi’s director of digital media and marketing, told iMedia Connection. Using “realtime” tracking technologies, Pepsi is now “finally able to deliver high impact online advertising,” Vail said.

Coca-Cola uses a variety of techniques to track individuals’ online behavior. For example, its “My Coke Rewards” program encourages consumers to use special codes from Coca-Cola products to access a website, where they can earn such rewards as downloadable ring tones and “amazing sports and entertainment experiences.” This “next-generation” promotion, explained Jeff Zabin, a director at Coke’s technology partner Fair Isaac, in an article written for, is “the most sophisticated example of how brands can utilize code promotions to capture behavioral and psychographic information about consumers.” The campaign embodies the company’s “vision” of “connect, collect and perfect” — “to connect with consumers, collect relevant information from consumers and, finally, perfect those relationships over time.”
Digital “360” Buzz Campaigns

Peer-to-peer marketing (sometimes called “buzz,” “word-of-mouth” or “viral” marketing) has become a staple among youth advertisers. Market researchers target key, influential young people who can serve as “brand sirens,” promoting products to their peers through instant messaging, social networking sites and blogs. Companies are creating elaborate viral campaigns, sometimes using “hidden messages” to lure youth into a series of games and other activities across different media, generating buzz within the online youth subculture, all under the public radar. This “360” marketing strategy engages with young people repeatedly wherever they are — in cyberspace, watching TV or offline.

KFC used a high-pitched tone as a promotional “buzz” device for a recent “interactive advertising campaign.” The “MosquitoTone” was embedded in TV commercials to launch KFC’s new “Boneless Variety Bucket.” In its press release, the company explained that the popular cell phone ring tone “is too high pitched for most adults to hear because most people begin to lose the ability to hear high frequency tones starting at age 20. This is a fact not lost on young Americans who seek the sound for clandestine ring tones that don’t turn the heads of nearby adults.”

In the TV commercial, the secret sounds were designed to attract the attention of young viewers and direct them to a website, where they could enter a contest to identify exactly where the tones could be heard in the ad, in order to win $10 coupons redeemable for the new chicken meal at any KFC.

Sprite created an alternate reality game “Lost Experience” — based on the highly popular ABC television series, “Lost” — giving viewers an opportunity to be more involved with their favorite show while inadvertently becoming engaged in a Sprite website. Marketers began by creating a “faux-commercial” that aired during an episode of the TV series, in order to “leak” the Web address — — to viewers. Once online, site visitors were invited to participate in a scavenger hunt with “DJ podcasts, videos and hidden memos.” Codes were also hidden in print ads in Entertainment Weekly and People magazines. As a result, more than 500,000 codes were entered and Sprite’s Web traffic jumped 400 percent.

Infiltrating Instant Messaging

The three major instant messaging formats — AOL’s AIM, Yahoo’s Messenger and MSN Messenger — all promote themselves aggressively to advertisers that want to permeate and surround teenagers’ ongoing casual conversations. AOL, Yahoo and MSN Messenger offer a variety of strategies, including “roadblocks” and “takeover ads” that flood a site’s homepage with interactive commercials, as well as branded “bots” and buddy icons.

The “M&M Always IMvironment” features the brand’s popular “spokescandies.” “There’s a new way to add a little more M&M to your day,” the site chirps. “Chat with friends about life, love and chocolate with this cool IMV. There’s an M in everyone.” IMvironments are animated backgrounds that customize the appearance of an instant message window.

“Max Out your chats!” urges the Yahoo IMvironment sponsored by Kraft’s Lunchables. “New Lunchables Lunch Combinations Maxed Out Double-Stacked Tacos have arrived and you’re in charge of the flavor and the fun. Buzz a friend and take your chat from Mild to Wild — no salsa necessary! Try it now.”

Commercializing Online Communities

Marketers have aggressively moved into MySpace and other social networking sites, taking advantage of their large, highly detailed user profiles and expanding lists of “friends,” which facilitate extensive targeting. Social networks are also blurring the line between what is marketing and what isn’t.

“Welcome to the King’s Court,” beckons the Burger King MySpace profile. “The virtual home of the Burger King. He’s giving away free episodes of the Fox shows ‘24,’ ‘Pinks’ and ‘First Friend.’ … And in typical King fashion, he’s giving you plenty of other stuff to check out too.” MySpace users can interact with the “King” on MySpace and add him as a “friend,” which gives the “King” access to their personal profile with information like age and hometown.

At the MySpace Jack-in-the-Box profile, visitors are greeted by “Jack Box” himself, who announces that his goal is “to rule the fast food world with an iron fist.” Through the profile, youth can read Jack’s daily blog entry, post a poem about the joys of cheeseburgers, or create a film and send it in for a chance to win a “Jackie.”

“Brand-Saturated” Environments

Food and beverage companies have created their own online branded entertainment sites, seamlessly weaving a variety of interactive content with product pitches and cartoon “spokescharacters.” Designed to encourage young consumers to engage playfully with products over long periods of time, many sites offer “free” content, games, merchandise and endless replays of television commercials.

With the growth of broadband technology, these digital playgrounds have evolved into highly sophisticated “immersive” experiences, including entire programs and “channels” built around brands. Multicultural marketers are keenly aware of the strong interest in music particularly among African American and Hispanic/Latino youth, and have created branded entertainment featuring popular celebrities and offering free downloads of their recordings.

Burger King created its own “branded online channel,” called Diddy TV, using popular rapper P. Diddy’s celebrity pull to draw viewers to the Burger King site.

The Mars candy company enlisted the musical group Black Eyed Peas to make a series of “webisodes” called “Instant Def,” in order to promote Snickers bars to teens. The brand is featured prominently in the storylines.

Viral Video

Short online videos are an increasingly popular way of promoting brands among youth, who like to view the videos and forward the links to their friends through IM, text messaging and blogs. Marketers are creating their own “viral videos” to promote their brands through peer-to-peer networks and video sharing services like YouTube. In some cases the sponsoring company is identified, while in others it is disguised.

Wendy’s placed several viral videos on YouTube, specifically designed to attract “young consumers.” In one video, “Molly Grows Up” — which generated more than 300,000 views — a young girl orders her first Junior Bacon cheeseburger and Frosty. While Wendy’s own corporate name was not connected to the intentionally humorous videos, users who watched them were sent to a special website for “Wendy’s 99-cent value menu.”

In January 2007, Domino’s Pizza revealed that it was behind a viral video that had received millions of hits. To promote its “Anything Goes Deal Contest,” the company placed a series of viral videos on MySpace and other popular social networking sites, using characters offering to sell big-ticket items. The first video, “MacKenzie Gets What MacKenzie Wants,” featured a “spoiled rich girl who wanted a blue car for her birthday but got a red one instead. Her whining persisted until she got the car she wanted and then, much to the surprise and delight of video viewers, she decided to offer her red car on eBay for only $9.99,” according to a Domino’s press release, which revealed the company as the creator of the video. The campaign was a hit, according to Domino’s. “With over 2 million views across multiple video sites, the popularity of the MacKenzie videos earned a top spot on several video sharing websites,” the press release stated.

Recruiting “Brand Advocates”

With more young people creating their own online “user-generated content,” marketers are now encouraging them to “co-create” and promote commercials for their favorite brands. In marketing circles, two new buzzwords — “consumer-generated” and “brand-generated” media — are often used interchangeably, suggesting an intentional blurring of roles.

The strategy is designed to foster powerful emotional connections between consumers and products, tap into a stable of young, creative talent willing to offer services for free and produce a new generation of “brand advocates.”

At General Mills’ website, children are encouraged to make the “best movie” about “Lucky” (of Lucky Charms cereal) and then vote for the winning video. The site provides a pre-branded kit of settings and spokescharacters, making it easy to combine them into a personalized commercial.

Pizza Hut’s contest invited pizza enthusiasts to create a short video, “demonstrating their devotion to Pizza Hut Pizza” and showing why they should earn the title of “Honorary Vice President of Pizza.” Contestants were encouraged to engage in a variety of creative acts to show their loyalty to the brand, such as “decorating their room with Pizza Hut memorabilia.” Entrants submitted their videos on YouTube, ensuring they would be seen by thousands of viewers, whether they won or not.


In-game advertising, or “game-vertising,” is a highly sophisticated, finely tuned strategy that combines product placement, behavioral targeting and viral marketing to forge ongoing relationships between brands and individual gamers. Marketing through interactive games works particularly well for snack, beverage and other “impulse” food products. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Gatorade, McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC, for example, were the “most recalled brands” by video game players, according to an October 2006 survey conducted by Phoenix Marketing International.

Not only can marketers incorporate their brands into the storylines of popular games, they can also use software that enables them to respond to a player’s actions in real time, changing, adding or updating advertising messages to tailor their appeal to that particular individual. At a September 2006 conference on interactive advertising, software developers explained how they purposefully create games to make them “in sync with the brand,” ensuring that images players see in the game are similar to what “they see in the supermarket aisle … [and on TV] Saturday morning.” In presentations at the conference, developers said that games must always be “addictive,” should include a “viral component” and be “continually updated” to facilitate ongoing data collection and analysis.

Sony partnered with Pizza Hut to build the ability to order pizza into its “Everquest II” videogame. If a player types in the command “pizza,” Pizza Hut’s online order page pops up, allowing the player to place an order. 

At Viacom’s — targeted at 8- to 17-year-olds — young gamers create and “take care of” virtual pets, earning virtual currency (neopoints) to pay for the pet’s upkeep by participating in contests and games. The site earns substantial advertising revenues from “User Initiated Brand Integrated Advertising” — activities or games built around advertisers’ products and services that help build relationships and generate revenues with Neopets visitors. For example, participants can earn points by buying or selling “valuable commodities,” such as McDonald’s French fries, or winning games with names like “Cinnamon Toast Crunch Umpire Strikes Out.” Food companies that have sponsored various activities on Neopets include McDonald’s, Frito-Lay, NestlE9, Kellogg’s, Mars, Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Kraft Foods and Carl’s Jr./Hardees.

Advertising Through Avatars

Immersive three-dimensional environments are on the cutting edge of digital marketing. These “virtual worlds” are complex, multilayered enterprises that combine many of the most popular online activities — such as instant messaging, interactive gaming and social networking — into increasingly elaborate settings in which individuals create their own online identities through avatars.

“Once the stuff of science fiction,” explains the website for the new-media ad agency Millions of Us, “virtual worlds are becoming central to the future of marketing, technology, entertainment and brand-building.”

Marketing through avatars is “one of the most effective kinds of advertising going,” wrote Jesse Shannon, president of the premiere interactive marketing agency, SAJE Media, on an interactive advertising website. He explains that the speed with which a “brand or marketing message can spread through a virtual world from avatar to avatar is breathtaking.” Among the food and beverage brands actively engaged in avatar-based strategies are Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kellogg, Nabisco, Kraft, Pizza Hut, P&G and Subway.

Habbo Hotel — “a teen community where you can meet people, play games and create your own online space” — aggressively promotes itself as a marketing venue, providing “companies and brands with a completely new and exciting way of building their brand value among teenagers around the world,” according to a Habbo press release. Marketers can sponsor various elements on the site, and Habbo Hotel’s pre-programmed avatars have been designed to make replies involving specific promotions.

Among the “Quests & Activities” currently featured on the home page of Habbo Hotel is a promotional game for Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts. “The Crazy Good Pop-Tarts Pastries are Hollywood Bound,” the site announces. “Find out where they are now!” Hotel inhabitants are also offered virtual incentives to take part in a poll: “Just for voting, you’ll have a chance to receive one of 20 free RARES [Habbo furniture]!” is a virtual, immersive environment that offers a multitude of interactive activities to engage teens, including chat, music downloading and mixing, user-generated video, blogs and its own currency. Coca-Cola worked with interactive marketing expert Studiocom to create Coke Studios, a “massive multiplayer online environment” where “teens hang out as their alter-identities, or ‘v-egos.’” Teens who want to become part of the MyCoke community are greeted with encouraging step-by-step instructions on the site: “Ready to reinvent yourself?” “Be who you want with your v-ego.” After users complete the registration process the site exclaims: “You’ve just made millions of new friends! People are cool. We’ll help you meet more of them.”

A Pervasive Presence

Marketing has become a pervasive presence in the lives of children and adolescents, extending far beyond the confines of television and the Internet into an expanding and ubiquitous digital media culture.

Food and beverage companies are at the forefront of a new 21st century marketing system. The strategies and techniques the companies are employing in this new arena mark a dramatic departure from traditional advertising. For example, in-game advertising is not just a new form of product placement; it is a highly sophisticated interactive environment designed to closely monitor individual players, as well as direct personalized ad messages designed to trigger impulsive purchases. Viral marketing is not just an online extension of word-of-mouth brand promotion, but also a calculated database strategy that relies on detailed profiles of key “influentials,” along with surveillance of their social networks. And so-called “brand-generated marketing” is not a way to direct advertising messages to children, but instead an increasingly popular method for recruiting millions of children to create and distribute the ads themselves

These emerging patterns and directions raise a number of troubling issues. While choices about what to eat are always made within a larger context, these new food marketing strategies, designed to intrude into every possible “touchpoint” of a young person’s daily life, make it very difficult for children to maintain health.

The digital media system is still in a formative, fluid stage, however. There is no question that digital media are also playing a positive role in the lives of young people, in many diverse ways. And while the growth and expansion of the interactive marketing system will continue unabated, there is time for the public, parents, health advocates and policymakers to be sure the new media culture serves the health of children rather than undermines it.

Jeff Chester is the founder and executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), an organization dedicated to promoting a democratic media system in the digital age. Kathryn Montgomery is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. This article is based on their report, “Interactive Food and Beverage Marketing: Targeting Children and Youth in the Digital Age.” The report was co-sponsored by the Berkeley Media Studies Group and CDD.

Multicultural Marketing to Kids

Food companies are working with a growing number of ad agencies, market research firms and consulting groups that specialize in developing digital strategies for targeting African-American and Latino children and youth. These multicultural marketing efforts have produced a variety of techniques tailored to specific ethnic groups, including African Americans and Hispanics, who are deemed less cynical about and more receptive to advertising. For example, African-American youth are considered particularly good candidates for “urban marketing” campaigns that employ peer-to-peer and viral strategies.

“Hispanic and African American audiences,” explains multicultural marketing expert James Briggs, “are already utilizing mobile tools, such as text messaging, that are at the heart of most successful mobile campaigns, at a much higher rate than the general population.”

“Hispanics are best reached with an integrated multi-media message which entertains, engages and provokes action,” according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. Among the most effective ingredients for successful campaigns are emotion (particularly humor), advergames, viral marketing and e-mail registration.

Annual “U.S. Multicultural Kids” reports by Nickelodeon and Cultural Access Group provide a steady stream of market research on patterns of media use and product consumption among young ethnic consumers, in order to “optimize relevant and impactful brand relationships.” According to the 2006 report, minority children have a particularly strong influence on what their parents purchase, including decisions about snacks, breakfast foods and other packaged food brands.

Burrell Communications Group, Advertising Age’s 2005 “Multicultural Agency of the Year,” refers to its specialty as “Yurban Marketing.” In a 2006 speech, co-CEO Fay Ferguson discussed effective ways for reaching young African Americans, describing a recent online campaign for one of the agency’s clients, McDonald’s, that “capitalized on the audience’s heavy involvement with NBA basketball.” Combining “All-Star updates, a sweepstakes and a branded game” on, the interactive promotion yielded impressive results: An average visit to the McDonald’s-branded content area lasted more than 20 minutes, and more than 37 percent of site visitors played the game for an average of 25 minutes each, according to Ferguson.

— J.C. and K.M.

Generation Digital

  • Approximately 70 percent of children ages 8-11 go online from home. Of those, 37 percent use instant messaging and 35 percent play games.
  • 93 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds use the Internet; more than half of online teens use social networks.
  • Of the more than 25 million 12- to17-year-olds in the United States, 20 million are gamers.
  • 57 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds have cell phones. Teenagers are more likely than other mobile users to use their phones to access shopping guides, and get movie and restaurant information.
  • 57 percent of online teenagers post their own “user-generated content” on the Web, including photos, stories, art work, audio and video.

Sources: Wendy Davis, “Seven in 10 Tweens Surf Web at Home,” Online Media Daily, October 27, 2006; Amanda Lenhart and Mary Madden, “Teens, Privacy & Online Social Networks,” Pew Internet & American Life, April 18, 2007; Gameasure; Bradley Johnson, “Understanding the ‘Generation Wireless’ Demographic,” Advertising Age, March 20, 2006; “User-Generated Content,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, November 6, 2006.

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