Snack-ad attack

Children represent a marketer's dream. Young and impressionable, many are likely to accept without question what they see and hear in ads. So it comes as good news that Masterfoods, makers of Mars and Snickers bars, will no longer target the under-12 set.

The policy shift due to take effect by the end of the year grows out of increasing public concern about overweight children. Child advocates hope other snackmakers will follow suit as they face growing pressure to stop marketing sugary food and drinks to the youngest consumers.

Marketing to children has escalated exponentially during the past two decades. In 1983, companies spent about $100 million a year on advertising to children, according to the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood in Boston. Today that figure has soared to $16.8 billion a year. That includes marketing for toys, clothing, electronics, candy, and entertainment.

Masterfoods, one of the top 30 advertisers in the world, has never aimed advertising at children under age 6. The new policy covers all advertising, including online and new media.

The change offers a hopeful sign that companies are acknowledging some link between advertising and bad eating habits. Still unanswered are questions about what will happen to other areas of marketing – areas that a Masterfoods spokeswoman says are still under review. The company will announce its full policy on marketing to children by mid year.

Will Masterfoods still market licensed cartoon characters, for example? Will it continue to make toys for children? And what about sponsoring youth sporting events? The company's website calls Snickers the "official candy of Little League."

The commendable change in the age threshold for advertising serves as a reminder of the many ways children of all ages are barraged by ads.

Beyond television, marketers find myriad ways to take their messages to youth. These include ads on school buses, in school cafeterias, on free book covers, and in news programs produced for schools. Many food companies now use the Internet to reach children.

A study by the Kaiser Foundation shows that 85 percent of top food brands that target children with TV ads also use branded websites. Three-quarters of those include games featuring a company's product. Called "advergames," they signal an eroding line between ads and entertainment.

Even publishers play a role by producing a genre of children's books that promote snacks. What toddler or preschooler needs a book featuring brand-name cereal, cookies, or candy, such as "The M&M's Brand Chocolate Candies Counting Book"? If parents stopped buying these, the market would presumably evaporate.

No child is an island. It isn't possible to shield children from all marketing ploys. But it is possible for adults who care about children to play a role in helping to reduce commercial exploitation of the young. Their concerned voices could form a counterpoint to the chorus of come-ons that repeatedly urge children to "buy, buy, buy," and "eat, eat, eat."

If those voices encouraged advertisers to alter their policies, and schools to bar the door on ads, impressionable children might be exposed to fewer tempting messages.

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