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]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Beerad says:

    This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. That smiling clown with the yellow suit and red hair has been around a long, long time. The idea of having a corporate mascot as your MySpace buddy is kinda creepy, though, especially if there’s some marketing exec on the other end of the computer.

  2. mopar_man says:

    So I guess parents have absolutely no responsibility in what their children eat? I wonder if the same idiot critic of the Pizza Hut Book It! program is heading this too.

  3. yahonza says:

    By all means, lets have the FTC regulate the sounds of commercials. I am sure the government will continue to do a great job protecting us from the evils of advertising.

  4. kenposan says:

    I have to echo mopar-man’s comment about parental responsibility here.

    As an aside, in my informal test, 1/2 of my friends over age 30 can hear “teen buzz”, aka, the Mosquito tone, including myself. I haven’t heard it attached to a KFC ad, but then again, I don’t pay attention to commercials anyway. I’ll start paying more attention and see if I notice it.

  5. Beerad says:

    I agree that parents need to step up, but the companies pretty much do everything they can to brainwash your kid. You probably don’t expect “Ronnie McD” to have a MySpace profile, and every 6 seconds your child is going to see a commercial implying that if Mom and Dad don’t take you to the Golden Arches they must not love you. They even flogged that Pizza Hut reading program in my school.

  6. rmz says:

    Somewhat off-topic, but I LOVE that picture.

  7. timmus says:

    The Mosquito tone is a joke… I am 38 and can hear it perfectly. According to Wikipedia a lot of adults can hear it too. It’s a brilliant marketing scam.

  8. B says:

    Won’t somebody please think of the children?

  9. 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.

    It sounds like they are trying to advertise to kids in ways that will bypass the parents completely. As bad as that is parents still don’t have to give in when their kids ask for KFC or whatever. They can teach their kids to know better.

  10. synergy says:

    I had to look this up because even though I’d heard the story about the mosquito tone, I’d never actually heard it. So, if you’re interested, here’s a page with links to what that tone sounds like and also links to non-MP3 sound files that aren’t as “dirty” as an MP3. I could hear all of them except the last one was faint, but still hurting my ears.


  11. jscott73 says:

    Parental responsibility is a smoke screen corporations use. If they truly thought it was the parents responsibility to make these decisions why do they spend billions of dollars advertising fast/junk food directly to kids? Also, why do they need to create a situation where parents are constanly telling their kids no, putting parents in the adversarial role doesn’t sound too family friendly to me. Visit http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org for more information on the attempts of corporations to undermine parental authority and what you can do about it.

  12. swalve says:

    HA! I knew I wasn’t crazy! I heard that tone a number of times during KFC commercials. I considered writing …somebody… about it, but figured I was just being paranoid.

    I’m a 31 year old male who can hear up to about 20khz. People look at me like I’m nuts when I tell them I can hear when a television is on even when it’s muted.

  13. lesbiansayswhat says:

    @swalve: I thought I was the only one who could hear muted TV. Thank you.