Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity
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Rudd Radar

Cereal Companies Leverage Digital Marketing to Target Children with Sugary Products

February 21, 2013

Cereal companies, the third biggest food marketer to children, are using sophisticated online marketing techniques to target children with unhealthy products and get them to engage with brands in ways not possible through television advertising, found a study by the Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Rudd Center published in the Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives.

Researchers identified 17 branded cereal websites (containing a total of 452 unique web pages) between October 2008 and March 2009 that targeted children. Most of these sites marketed cereals high in sugar and low in nutrients and the less nutritious the cereal, the more likely it was to be marketed to children.

At a time when childhood obesity and related health problems are high, and youth engagement with online media is growing—nearly 10 percent of those in the U.S. who are active on the internet are between ages 2 and 11—these findings have significant implications for public health.

“Our research demonstrates the effectiveness of digital media as a vehicle to market unhealthy foods like sugary cereals to children,” said the study’s lead author, Andrew Cheyne of the Berkeley Media Studies. “We found that sugary cereal websites with the most interactive features engaged children for longer periods of time and inspired children to return to the sites more often than sites with little interactive content.”

Such online marketing targeted at children is minimally regulated. Unlike with television commercials, which the Federal Communications Commission restricts to 12 minutes per hour, there is no limit to online ad exposure. Instead of seeing 30 seconds of advertising at a time, children often stay online, interacting with brands for hours.

Cereal companies use a variety of multimedia features including games and advergames (found on 82 percent of sites), online video (found on 10 percent of pages across the sites), and “immersive environments” to keep children on their websites. They also use viral marketing techniques to turn children themselves into marketers, encouraging children to invite their friends to join them online.

“These techniques are problematic because the young children they are targeting don’t understand the persuasive intent of advertising,” said study author Jennifer Harris, Director of Marketing Initiatives at the Rudd Center. “When cereal companies integrate these marketing techniques throughout their websites, it blurs the line between entertainment and advertising, making it even harder for children to resist this type of marketing.”

The study also found that cereal marketers have been able to track children’s online behavior and collect personal information about them (often without parents’ awareness) using website cookies and online registration forms. Recent updates to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act expand safeguards against these practices.

The study was co-authored by the Berkeley Media Studies Group’s Andrew Cheyne, CPhil, Media Researcher; Lori Dorfman, DrPH, Director; Eliana Bukofzer, MPH, Researcher; and the Rudd Center’s Jennifer Harris, PhD, MBA, Director of Marketing Initiatives.