In July, the Council of Better Business Bureaus announced that 11 food industry companies, including McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Mars, had voluntarily set new rules to eliminate junk food advertising to kids younger than 12.
But critics familiar with these companies' marketing campaigns question the sincerity of that pledge.
"It appears that the food and beverage industry is making minimal changes with one hand, but greatly expanding its marketing to children with the other. It's not fair to families when food companies use technology to market to children out of earshot of parents," said Lori Dorfman, director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group.
According to a May report from the Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Center for Digital Democracy, many companies have found creative ways to use technology to appeal to younger customers. One example cited was Coca-Cola's My Coke Rewards program, which invites customers to use special codes found on Coke products to access a Web site and enter personal information to collect rewards like downloadable ring tones.
According to Kathryn Montgomery, a professor of communications at American University and a consultant on the report, the Coca-Cola program enables marketers to create a profile of each customer, including information about purchasing behavior and responses to advertising messages.
Companies who have made the pledge are aware that kids younger than 12 are reached by some of their junk food advertising campaigns aimed at older audiences.
For example, General Mills, Mars and Kelloggs advertise on Neopets, a social networking site where 26 percent of users are younger than 12, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
In response to such concerns, Coca-Cola and Mars Inc. explain that their pledge is a commitment to eliminate junk food advertising to kids only if the TV program or Web site is specifically designed for kids younger than 12 or has an audience where 50 percent or more of the users belong to that demographic.
"Coca-Cola respects the sanctity of childhood and the role parents play in raising their children and determining what they eat and watch. Media buys are made on the basis of brand strategy … that has 50 percent or more adults [as an audience]," said Diane Garza, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola. "For every child that gets exposed, there is an adult present. If they as a family are involved in a certain media and they expose children, that's a decision they are making for their family. It's about intent, not exposure."
Ryan Bowling, spokesperson for Mars U.S., agreed, saying, "We told the public [that we're] not marketing to audiences under 12. Those sites are geared towards older audiences, so we're comfortable with them. It's up to the parents to supervise kids accordingly."
Thomas Robinson, of the Center for Healthy Weight at the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, takes issue with the 50 percent rule.
"If it's 50 percent of the audience, clearly [that is] not as sincere than if they were to reduce their standards," Robinson said. "If their promise to reduce advertising to kids under 12 is not extended to other marketing, then it puts doubt on whether or not they're doing this to promote health or just protecting themselves from lawsuits."
As part of the pledge, companies stated that products advertised on any program directed primarily at kids under the age of 12 would only be sound food choices.
But some pediatricians question the nutritional value of the so-called "healthier options" promoted by companies like McDonald's.
"They'll say they're all white meat chicken, but it's still fried and high in fat. So not sure how healthy that is. White meat smushed together? No idea what their food technology is like," said Robinson.
"The healthy alternatives are strawberries and blueberries. Things that have natural nutrients in them. Foods I prefer not to get are ones with high fructose corn syrup. Any food that has HFS is highly processed. You're better off with natural foods, naturally enriched ones," said George Bray, chief of the division of clinical obesity and metabolism at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
Robinson, the lead author of a recent Stanford study titled "Effects of Fast Food Branding on Young Children's Taste Preferences," explains that children as young as 3 years old are able to differentiate between brands.
"Our study found that when a child had two foods, the one they thought was from McDonald's was the one they thought tasted better," Robinson said. "Even for carrots, kids thought [they] were better if [they] came from McDonald's then regular carrots."
The purpose of the study was to measure the effect of children's exposure to brands from birth, including their experience at a restaurant with food, peer behavior and restaurant-sponsored toys.
"The effects were already present with kids 3- to 5-year-olds," Robinson said. "Seventy-five percent of children had toys from McDonald's in their home — three-quarters of the children! When you talk about market penetration, that's pretty amazing to me."
Robinson is convinced that companies can successfully promote healthier options while still turning a profit.
"They're very effective at what they do. I have every confidence they can do it with healthy food items, as they did with junk food. When Atkins became popular, overnight they turned on a dime. You saw low-carb products everywhere. When they see a market opportunity, they have no problem changing the marketing. I think if they wanted to do it, they could do it, and still make a profit."
The Federal Trade Commission is currently conducting a study on food marketing to children and adolescents and has already sent orders to the companies that advertise most frequently to that demographic requesting that they reveal the types of marketing techniques they use.
In the meantime, doctors support the idea behind the pledge to halt that marketing.
"The pledge is a step in the right direction. It's a baby step, but a big one for the big companies," said Keith-Thomas Ayoob, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Montgomery applauds the food industry's initiative to eliminate the marketing that reaches children, but she remains skeptical of their motives.
"I think it's a move in the right direction. It shows that the food industry is a serious problem, have to do something about it, have to take it seriously. Obviously they do that to prevent government regulation. They know the FTC is doing an investigation of food advertising practices," she said.
"However I think it's very complicated. … As a consumer, as a parent, this company doing this, this company doing that, how do I hold them accountable? If they have clear rules, then you have a level playing field."
Despite the pediatricians' consensus on the negative effects of junk food advertising, they readily hold parents accountable for their children's health and diet decisions.
"Advertising does not guarantee sales. Parents have a lot more clout then they think," said Ayoob."They should not be influenced by children or advertising. An ad can be what it is, but no one is giving food for free. Parents are buying the food."
For parents, the challenge is to cut through the marketing messages to determine whether the food being offered is indeed healthy for their children.
"They can talk a good talk, but can they walk the walk? I doubt it, if it's gonna cut their profits. I think it's gonna come down to the government to set regulations," said Sherri Carlson, a mother of three who lives in Massachusetts.