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."