FTC To Investigate Deceptive Youth-Oriented Advertising Practices, Like KFC's "21st Century Dinner Bell," Audible Only To Kids

A report damning the coercive and deceptive practices used by food marketers to reach kids has been submitted to the FTC. The Commission plans to investigate how the food industry markets to children and adolescents; information requests, Commission-speak for subpoenas, have been sent to 44 companies that manufacture, market, and distribute foods and beverages.

The report from the Center for Digital Democracy found that fast food chains employ an array of new marketing tactics designed to reach kids and evade parents. One initiative from KFC was described by their chief marketing officer as, “the 21st century dinner bell:”

Kentucky Fried Chicken used a high-pitched Mosquito tone, which is supposed to audible only to those with extremely undamaged hearing such as children, in its television ad. It then asked respondents to go to a Web site and identify where they heard the tone in the ad–in essence turning the ad into a game or competition.

KFC responded by saying…

(Photo: eliazar)

…that the ads were not targeted to young children, but to young parents. Besides, it’s not like the kids could win anything: “To enter the sweepstakes associated with the commercial, Web visitors were required to be at least 18 years old.”

Fast food chains have wholeheartedly adopted new media strategies to reach kids. Ad campaigns increasingly involve IMs and text messages, and several brands have placed their mascots on social networking sites like MySpace, turning people who friend their corporate creations into brand ambassadors.

The government is just beginning to wise-up to these practices. In addition to the planned FTC investigation, the FCC has formed a task force on media and childhood obesity. The executive agencies have been hesitant to wield their regulatory power, instead hoping the industry will begin to censor itself. We all know how well that turns out.

The industry’s self-regulation guidelines only apply to children 12 and under. By their own standards, they have a free hand to go after teens, who are subjected to over 6,000 ads each year on television alone.

The report recommends increased government monitoring, along with regulatory guidelines to curb the industry’s more egregious practices. — CAREY GREENBERG-BERGER

Is Online Marketing Making Kids Obese? [Business Week]
Interactive Food & Beverage Marketing – Targeting Children and Youth in the Digital Age [Digital Ads]