Monday, April 02, 2007

Food Marketing and Your Child

Part II: When the TV is off, the marketing is still on

There are several facets to food marketing to children and youth. Part I covered television advertising. In Part II, I want to discuss the other facets of marketing that are less obvious and less visible to parents. These tactics account for the other eighty percent of food marketing to our children.

Understanding all of these facets is important, as today’s marketing is moving toward an integrated approach. In other words, all the different “channels” where you see marketing information from television to toys, to the store display to the product package all carry the same message.

In the most integrated strategies, these duplicated messages drive consumers from one channel to another to expand the experience and increase the marketing impression. Such strategies often use an online game or sweepstakes that is also featured in a commercial with the web site url. The same messaging will also appear on a product package or point of purchase display. Research shows that these types of integrated advertising strategies are among the most effective campaigns.

The other sides of marketing

Trade Promotion
Chances are you have never heard of this type of marketing unless you happen to own the local grocery store. Mainly, it’s all about location. Imagine that store as one large real estate development. In order to get the condo with the ocean view, you have to pay a premium. Now, imagine that condo is the end of the cereal aisle that faces the main walkway through the store to get to the milk and eggs. This is prime real estate. Product manufacturers pay retailers to put their products in a prominent position on store shelves.

The product manufacturer also pays your grocery store to allow them the floor space for in-store displays. They also give your retailer free merchandise, buy back allowances, or even offer sales contests to push certain products. This is trade promotion, and most food companies spend as much on this kind of marketing as they do on all consumer-facing media advertising and sales promotions combined.

The grocery store or retailer is making money twice, or more, on many of the products it sells. Once to display the product where you (or your kids riding in the cart) will find it, and again at the cash register when you pay for it.

By the way, have you ever noticed how all the cereal packages with characters on them and high sugar content are always right at “cart-eye-level?” Have you ever noticed that the few things you need most (meat, milk, eggs) are always at the back of the store? Or that the produce is always off in one side where you have to walk most the store in order to get the basics on your list. The organization of products at your retail outlet is planned carefully to maximize this “high-dollar” real estate. It's also designed to maximize the "nag" factor, or getting your kids to nag you for a product until you cave in frustration and buy it. Profit from creating family conflict, what a great marketing strategy!

The other kind of product placement
This type of marketing tactic is also called embedded marketing. Probably the most recognized example of this would be ET’s love of Reese’s Pieces, one of the first major product positioning campaigns in a movie. The short-term sales of the product increased by 66 percent after the movie debuted. Product placement expanded to television from movies. One study in 1997 examined just one week’s primetime programming and found nearly 3,000 brands placed in 154 different programs of the four major non-cable networks. Product placement can also be found in popular music, videogames and “advergames.”

Other forms of embedded media include viral marketing tactics like videos on, and even books with such titles as Kellogg’s Fruit Loops Counting Fun Book and the Oreo Cookie Counting Book, and the M&M’s Brand Chocolate Candies Board Book. Obviously, if a child is still learning to count and reading board books, the age these titles are designed for is around 12 months to 3 years old. Got to make that early brand impression.

Character Licensing and Beyond
Even as one of the SpyKids pulls McDonald’s meal out of his lunch box, other Disney movie toys are going into the Happy Meal bags. Character licensing is so ubiquitous in children’s products that you almost have to purchase something with a movie tie-in whether you want to or not.

Everything from diapers for children whom the American Academy of Pediatricians says are too young for television, to clothing, books, coloring books, toys, games, shampoo, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, cereal, cookies, candy … all of it has some kind of character. It’s like the movie that never ends. It’s impossible to avoid. And it makes me wonder, does the merchandise drive kids to want to see the movie, or does the movie drive the merchandise sales? And, if the latter is true, why should we have to pay to watch the movie if we are going to keep paying for it long after the last credit rolls? Disney should be paying us to watch.

It even works for kids who did not see the movie. We went down the cereal aisle to get Wholegrain Cheerios. As I reached for the box, my kiddo looks around noticing for the first time, the bright, character-laden packages.

“What’s this?” she said. I hesitated. What do I say? How do I even begin the explanation?

“Sugary crap with cool boxes,” I said. “If you like a character, we can get you the coloring book instead.” She didn’t hear the last part. She had gotten the Cheerios open and was perfectly happy.

There is also no rhyme or reason as to whom appears on what. In the wake of a proposed law suit against Viacom, (owner of Nickelodean), characters such as Dora and Sponge Bob will now appear on packaged produce like carrots and spinach. However, you will still be able to find Sponge Bob on taffy and gummy candy as well. But don’t fret, after your kids eat that, there is always Sponge Bob toothbrushes and toothpaste.

Other tactics similar to character licensing include cross-promotions (like ET pimping Reeses') and co-branding. This latter category is when two companies collaborate to bring you such fantastic creations as Kellogg’s Pirates of the Caribbean cereal with chocolate cannonballs and skull-shaped marshmallows. Now rotting on store shelves even as Disney paints a new nutritionally-friendly portrait for parents.

Or, various toy companies that create toy sets like the McFlurry Maker, McDonald’s Play Food Set, McDonald’s Backpack with Play Fries as well as toys by Subway, Pizza Hut, and Chuck E. Cheese. If you don’t want to make your own play food fun, Barbie can help you with her McDonald’s Fun Time Barbie and Coca-Cola Barbie. Want to step up to making your own junk food? It’s easy with the Easy Bake oven and Pizza Hut and Chips Ahoy mixes.

Getting one of these toys into the home is like gold for marketing the food. The brand is not only in the household, it is a fun toy that the child plays with every day. The TV does not have to be on to build brand loyalty! Best of all? The parents PAY for the toy. They fund the fast food company’s marketing efforts to their own children. Whoever came up with that one in the marketing department got a raise for sure. As for this parent, I see all that stuff as the culinary equivalent of candy cigarettes.

Consumer Promotions
These types of promotions offer consumers incentives to purchase an item and are generally associated with the term “for a limited time only.” The most common incarnation is the humble coupon. Other types of sales promotions can include discounts, sales, rebates, gifts, point of purchase display, sweepstakes and contests. A current example of this would be the “Team Nabisco Championship Weekend Getaway” Sweepstakes brought to you by such products as Nilla Wafers and Milk Chocolate-Covered Oreos. The idea is that you purchase the product and enter the UPC code at an online site in order to enter. This tactic gets consumers to explore the web site where there are games, recipes and more promotions and coupons.

Schoolyard Market
Up until the recent, and long overdue, backlash against marketing in schools, these types of marketing tactics were on the rise. Marketers found schools a fantastic place to advertise because of the large numbers of captive audience, away from parents, and because they could leverage the shortages in school funding to help open the doors.

Multi-million dollar pouring contracts between the soft drink companies and school systems are now normal, but hopefully on their way out. The most nefarious of such contracts were multi-year deals with additional funds for meeting sales quotas, effectively paying our schools to push soda to our kids for profit. Similar contractual agreements were made with fast food chains, bringing those products into the lunchroom daily.

Some in-school marketing has even included billboards and signs in hallways, sponsored scoreboards and sports equipment. Free Channel One programming and televisions complete with food ads piped into the 370,000 classrooms of nearly 8 million secondary school children. “Teaching” materials and education kits complete with the food brand, and 80 percent of these offering inaccurate or incomplete educational content. Pizza Hut’s BookIt Program, now available in pre-schools (even though they can't read yet) as well as primary schools. McDonald’s McSpellIt Program; does every word have a "Mc?" Schools have even allowed students to be used for market research and surveys, and taste tests. Recent proposals even included bus radio complete with commercials for those captive moments to and from school. Hate to miss a great marketing opportunity like that.

Heard enough? Or had enough? I know I have, and I want this changed before my child gets to public school. There are some positive changes being made. Most of these changes are the result of public outcry and companies realizing parents are aware and angry. We need to stay angry and stay involved.

Enough is enough. It’s all too much. And it’s time for us to change it. Part III of this segment is up next with a summary of the things we can do as parents to stop a situation that has gone out of control.


Mike & Misty said...

I'm already fighting branding for my daughter (4 months old), though not with food specifically. Our friends and family have been VERY generous with donating clothing--as I go through seeing what we will keep, anything with tv characters or toys is automatically put in the 'do not keep' pile. For ourselves we buy a lot of generic items, so maybe that will help a bit.

Thanks for posting this!

The Expatriate Chef said...

I go so far as to take the packaged foods and put them into plain clear plastic bins. We try to buy a lot of whole foods as well. I avoid most TV characters in the books I buy and we don't watch TV. Usually, the first request by name comes around age two. It's hard, but if we try, we can filter out most of the noise! Good for you and your efforts!