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updated 7/19/2006 7:56:47 PM ET 2006-07-19T23:56:47

When they play Chips Ahoy Soccer Shootout and Pop-Tart Slalom, kids aren’t just having fun. They also are subjects in marketing efforts to sell food, a study finds.

The Kaiser Family Foundation’s report did not pass judgment on such online “advergames.” But at a forum Wednesday, it did lead to a confrontation on the food industry’s role in childhood obesity.

“Overwhelmingly, almost exclusively, the Web sites you are looking at are for foods that are of poor nutritional quality,” said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group.

An industry executive said food companies have developed thousands of healthier products. For example, McDonald’s led the nation in apple sales last year, said Daniel Jaffe, executive vice president at the Association of National Advertisers.

“You think 50 million is a small number for apples?” he said.

Wootan said that the “tiny little examples” are “baby steps forward” in offering healthier food to kids.

'Many different factors' contribute to childhood obesity
A Kraft Foods executive said experts disagree on the impact of advertising food to kids. “There are many different factors contributing to childhood obesity and overweight,” said Nancy Daigler, a Kraft vice president.

Kraft said last year it would stop advertising unhealthy food to kids and will extend that policy to the Internet by the end of 2006, Daigler said. Kraft has reformulated many of its products, such as Alphabits cereal, to meet its guidelines for healthier foods, she said.

Food marketing to children has been getting more scrutiny as more children develop weight problems. The rate of overweight and obesity among children has climbed to 17 percent, compared with 14 percent four years ago, according to the government.

To date, research has focused mostly on TV commercials, which are far more widespread than “advergames” and other types of online marketing.

Food brand Web sites are unique in that they involve children more deeply and for longer periods of time, the study found.

Children who visit the sites have many opportunities to interact with candy bars, cereals and snack foods in a fun, branded environment, said Vicky Rideout, who oversaw the research for the private that focuses on health care issues.

Powerful marketing tool
“It’s potentially a lot more powerful as a marketing tool than TV ever dreamed of being,” Rideout said.

Researchers analyzed 77 Web sites with more than 4,000 pages, focusing on the top food brands that use television to target kids. Researchers found that 85 percent also use Web sites.

The sites were visited more than 12.2 million times during the second quarter of last year, the study said.

The study did not include other popular Web sites that promote food, such as www.neopets.com

In addition to playing games, kids can also watch special Internet-only commercials, such as “Webisodes” featuring Froot Loops’ Toucan Sam and Lucky Charms’ Lucky the Leprechaun. Kids can also e-mail friends about Web sites.

The report found that games are offered on three-quarters of the Web sites; two-thirds of those sites encourage kids to send e-mails telling their friends about a product or inviting them to visit a Web site. And more than a quarter of the Web sites let kids join so they can be told about new brands, exclusive offers and new TV commercials. Only half required a parent’s permission.

Junk food marketing to kids was the subject of a report last year by the congressionally chartered Institute of Medicine.

Panel members stopped short of blaming TV advertising for obesity in kids. But they said the evidence of a direct link was so compelling, only healthy foods should be marketed to kids.

One panelist, University of Arizona communications professor Dale Kunkel, joined in Wednesday’s discussion. Very young children are vulnerable to marketing and do not understand the inherent exaggeration and bias, Kunkel said.

“Is it fair to target children? The research says that no, it is not,” he said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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