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When these tactics revolve around food, and blur the line between advertising and entertainment, they are a source of intensifying concern for nutrition experts and children’s advocates — and are attracting scrutiny from regulators. The Federal Trade Commission has undertaken a study of food marketing to children, due out this summer, while the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity has said one reason so many children are overweight is the way junk food is marketed.

Critics say the ads, from major companies like Unilever and Post Foods, let marketers engage children in a way they cannot on television, where rules limit commercial time during children’s programming. With hundreds of thousands of visits monthly to many of these sites, the ads are becoming part of children’s daily digital journeys, often flying under the radar of parents and policy makers, the critics argue.

“Food marketers have tried to reach children since the age of the carnival barker, but they’ve never had so much access to them and never been able to bypass parents so successfully, ” said Susan Linn, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy coalition. Ms. Linn and others point to many studies that show the link between junk-food marketing and poor diets, which are implicated in childhood obesity.

Food industry representatives call the criticism unfair and say they have become less aggressive in marketing to children in the Internet era, not more so.

The pledge says the companies, if they choose to market to children, will only advertise food choices that are “better for you, ” said Elaine D. Kolish, director of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, an arm of the Better Business Bureau that oversees the pledge.

“Compliance is excellent, ” she said of the pledge. She noted that in recent months, companies had shut down several child-centric sites, including General Mills’s popular virtual world Millsberry, while other sites have been changed to focus on adults, like those of Kellogg’s Pop Tarts and Pepsi’s Cap’n Crunch. And she said General Mills and Post Foods had cut or pledged to cut the amount of sugar in some cereals.

Only rarely do these major companies violate their pledges, she said: “It’s pretty darn infrequent and it’s not willful.”

Nutrition experts say that the voluntary pledges are fraught with loopholes, and that “better for you” is a relative term that allows companies to keep marketing unhealthful options.

Whatever criticism they may invite, the companies have good financial reason to pitch to children. James McNeal, a former marketing professor at Texas A&M University, estimates conservatively that children influence more than $100 billion in food and beverage purchases each year, and well over half of all cold cereal purchases.

Children “have power over spending in the household, they have power over the grandparents, they have power over the babysitters, and on and on and on, ” said Professor McNeal, who has researched family behavior for decades and consulted for major companies on marketing to children. “All of that is finally being recognized and acknowledged.”

Some parents, like Lesly Lopez’s mother, Toribia Huerta, 26, say the online marketing is subverting their efforts to improve their children’s diets. Ms. Huerta said Lesly and her younger siblings pester her for sugary cereals they see in the games and for snacks like Baby Bottle Pops, a candy with a game site that the girl also visits often.

“They ask me for it constantly. They’re hard to resist when they whine, ” Ms. Huerta said, speaking in Spanish through a translator. She blames her daughter’s love of sugar for her dental problems, including many cavities.

But Ms. Huerta also said the food sites seemed fun and safe: “They look like good games for her age.”

Games for Goods

In 1990, Congress sought to shield young people from a marketing barrage, passing a law that limits commercial time during an hour of children’s programming to 12 minutes on weekdays and 10 minutes 30 seconds on weekends, a few minutes less than the average at the time.

Current regulations also require a buffer between ads and programs so that children can tell the difference. Children’s advocates say this is important because research shows that until they are 11 or 12, children don’t really understand how advertising works.

Photo Lesley Lopez, 10, creates comics on the Honey Nut Cheerios Web site, and pesters her mother to buy sugary cereals. Credit J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times

These advocates say that on the Internet, food companies, even those that have made pledges to protect children, are blurring content and ads to promote products that can be harmful.

A 2009 report from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University found that companies used online games, puzzles and other flashy multimedia to hawk cereals ranked among the least nutritious: Lucky Charms, Trix and Honey Nut Cheerios from General Mills; Froot Loops and Apple Jacks from Kellogg; and Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Pebbles from Post, to name a few.

“Perfect compliance with an awful standard takes you down a bad road, ” said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center.

Another study from the University of Arizona found that 68.5 percent of marketing directed at children by companies that took the pledge was for the least nutritious alternatives. And a quarter of all advertising to children comes from companies that haven’t taken the pledge, the research found.

The sites can attract substantial audiences. HappyMeal.com and McWorld.com, sites from McDonald’s, received a total of 700, 000 visitors in February, around half of whom were under 12, according to comScore, a market research firm. The firm says 549, 000 people visited the Apple Jacks site from Kellogg’s, which offers games and promotes an iPhone application called “Race to the Bowl Rally.” General Mills’s Lucky Charms site, with virtual adventures starring Lucky the Leprechaun, had 227, 000 visitors in February.

Visitors to Pebbles Play from Post, the game hub for Fruity Pebbles and similar cereals, can play games and upload their picture into a postcard with Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, then e-mail it to a friend.

Mr. Brownell said these marketing efforts were more cost-effective than TV spots because they were cheaper to produce and disseminate and were promoted by the children themselves — through word of mouth or its online equivalent.

“The kids are not only recipients of marketing, they are the tools of marketing, ” he said.

Kirstie Foster, a spokeswoman for General Mills, said the company was “committed to maintaining the highest standards for responsible advertising to children.” For example, she said, company sites used mostly by children under 12 urge visitors to take a break every 30 minutes. And she noted that banners on the sites identified them as advertising.

Activity or Ad?

Many of the school’s students say they have periodic and often casual online interactions with food companies. In Lesly’s class, for example, seven of 15 students said they had played games on the Baby Bottle Pop site.



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