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Marketing: No more child's play


Hollie Shaw

Financial Post
February 16, 2008


Many of us have childhood memories filled with beloved corporate cartoon character such as friendly animated ruffian Tony the Tiger or the Rice Krispie elves Snap, Crackle and Pop.

But in an era of skyrocketing childhood obesity rates, marketers are facing their toughest creative challenge yet - an increasing clampdown on rules about advertising to kids. Many of the items where the likeliest consumer is a child can no longer be advertised to kids under the age of 12.

The makers of sugary standbys such as Cadbury Cream Eggs, Nesquik syrup, Froot Loops and smiley-faced french fries all have agreed to a new set of advertising standards which will be fully implemented by the end of 2008.

A children's advertising initiative from non-profit self-regulatory body Advertising Standards Canada (ASC) has secured pledges from 16 food and beverage giants including Kellogg Canada Inc., McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Ltd. and Nestlé Canada Inc., that all advertising they direct to children under 12 will promote healthier dietary choices and an active lifestyle. Eight of the companies, including Cadbury Adams Canada Inc. and McCain Foods Canada, will not direct any advertising to children under 12.

It means the entire 2008 ad budget for chocolate Nesquik syrup will go towards its reduced sugar varieties, says Nestlé Canada spokeswoman Kathryn Roan. "We as a company know that moms are increasingly looking to find products in the ‘better for you' category for their children, and we are constantly renovating our products to meet that demand," she says.

The rules mean New Brunswick-based McCain Foods Ltd. will not be able to do any more ads showing adolescent boys tossing Pizza Pockets against a wall and watching their gooey contents trickle down to the floor, notes Ted Matthews, Instinct Brand Equity Coaches.

"But what these companies are not saying is that advertising sugar-reduced [Nesquik] will still lead people to the grocery shelves where they can find [classic] Nesquik. Advertising regular McCain fries will bring a parent to [Smiles]," he says, noting the world's largest French fry manufacturer still has tremendous clout as a brand.

The industry guidelines came about in response to reports that childhood obesity tripled in the 25 years prior to 2004, and is now hovering at an all-time high of 20% overweight children and 8% obese kids.

Under the regulations, companies have agreed to restrictions such as not using licensed cartoon characters and running their TV commercials during programs not typically watched by children. All national children's TV advertising is vetted and approved by an industry committee before it is broadcast.

The moves could take a bite out of sales for some of the companies. While 70% of overall candy consumption is by adults, the number of kids under 12 who eat chocolate bars and sugary treats "is not insignificant," says Luisa Girotto, head of corporate communications at Cadbury Adams Canada Inc., which makes Mini Eggs and candy such as Swedish Berries in its Maynards division.

"Turning off the volume to all your consumers under 12 isn't without its implications," she says. "But it is not 20 years ago, and it is not our childhood."

The McCain Web site is clearly directed towards parents, even if the intended user of the product is children. A Web page featuring Smiles French fries shows a boy holding the smiley-faced potato patties over his eyes, while copy on the site suggests, "Invite [Smiles] to your child's next birthday party, play date or sleep over."

"Companies will continue to sell food for children, but we direct all of our advertising to parents or perhaps families," Calla Farn, McCain Foods' director of corporate, government and public affairs, recently told the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

But will parents listen?

"It's too early to tell, but it's an important step to make and it is probably one of the steps that an aggregate of society has to participate in," says Ms. Girotto. But the success of 100-calorie Cadbury Thins bars, which launched in mid-2005 and now represent 6% of sales in the company's chocolate portfolio, indicate adults are interested and aware of potion control, she adds.

"Parents play the most important role in their kids' lives," she says. "These are treats - they have a role to play, but they have a very specific role to play. If they are not advertised to the children, how do kids find out about it? All the better that parents moderate that and make the purchase decision."

Kellogg Canada Inc. appears to be facing one of the biggest challenges, with numerous products that fail to meet the nutritional guidelines (servings with no more than 200 calories, no trans fat and less than 2 grams of saturated fat, no more than 230 mgs of sodium and no more than 12 grams of sugar). Products currently advertised to children six to 11 years old that "would be impacted" by the above commitments include 10 varieties of Eggo waffles, all Pop-Tarts and cereals such as Rice Krispies, Corn Pops, Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes, Kellogg said in a recent report to the ASC.

Company officials declined interview requests, but one only need visit the Web site to witness how the company is struggling to navigate the changing landscape.

Industry guidelines still permit the use of company-owned cartoon characters, so Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam are safe for now - in limited formats. The company has started to insert "healthy lifestyle messaging" in its online games. One video game encourages players to "catch the nutritious breakfast foods," such as bananas and blueberries, on movable Eggo waffles. A Froot Loops page opens with a pop-up screen declaring "Turn off your computer! Jump off your chair! Go outside and play!" before kids can access a pirate treasure game starring the cereal's signature cartoon or play six online cartoon commercials for the multicoloured cereal. Another area of the site urges kids to join the 1,000,000 push-up challenge and links to a video of a kid performing soccer drills.

"[New restrictions] make packaging much more important for these companies," Mr. Matthews says. "You need to grab the parents at the store level."

Of course, kids can still be easily ensnared at the grocery store: Kellogg is giving away a free Hot Wheels toy car or a Barbie watch inside boxes of Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes.


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