Luka Osborne

You may watch what your children are eating, but are you watching how they use the Internet? A new study from the University of Auckland has found that food companies are using ever more sophisticated marketing online to target children and adolescents.

The researchers found that one third of the 70 food company websites analysed used marketing techniques intended to engage young people.

The marketing techniques that were studied included education linked advertising (87 per cent), viral marketing (64 per cent), cookies (54 per cent), free downloadable items (43 per cent), promotional characters (39 per cent), designated children’s sections (19 per cent) and advert linked gaming (13 per cent).

“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.

You might think that everyone is exposed to junk food adds on signs, magazines and television however Dr Vandevijvere notes: “website marketing techniques might be more engaging than for traditional media”.

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” says Swinburn.

Around a third of websites included television advertisements and competitions and/or giveaways. Combo meals, value packs or special discounted items were found on 13 percent of the websites, mainly for fast food restaurants. However, aside from these engaging specials, 91 advert-linked games were identified with devices such as leader boards, and personalised characters, none of which specified age restrictions or parental consent.

“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 food… 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.