Coca-Cola, Soft-Drink Companies' Advertising to U.S. Children, Teens on the Rise: Study

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Coca-Cola and other soft drink companies have increased targeting of young people in product advertisements, according to a study released Monday.

Soft-drink and soda companies are targeting children and teens in the United States more than ever with marketing and advertisements for sugary drinks across various platforms, according to a study released Monday.

Authors of the study, which was produced by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, highlighted findings that children and teenagers have been exposed over the 2008-10 period to increased advertising in sugary drinks such as soda, fruit and energy drinks.

Black and Hispanic children were major demographics of emphasis for the companies. Black children and teens saw 80 to 90 percent more ads than white children and teens, and Hispanic children saw 49 percent more ads on Spanish-language television.

All of which, and more, troubled co-author Kelly Brownell, director and co-founder of the Rudd Center, and other experts. They raised concerns about childhood obesity - according to the Center for Disease Control, 15 percent of children in the United States are overweight or obese - and what they perceive as a lack of government regulation of soft-drink companies.

Who are the most vulnerable among population? Kids, and certain demographics, Brownell told the International Business Times in a phone interview Monday. They're getting more advertising than general population. I know the industry isn't setting out to make kids obese, but if they were they'd be doing a pretty good job.

Coca-Cola and Dr Pepper Snapple Group were the two main culprits responsible for the increase. According to the study, Coca-Cola upped advertising for a number of products, including Coca-Cola Classic (39 percent), Minute Maid fruit drinks (99 percent) and Powerade (89 percent). Dr Pepper Snapple Group did the same - Dr Pepper soda went up 36 percent, and 7 Up increased 62 percent.

At the same time, PepsiCo -- Coca-Cola's main competitor -- decreased television advertising by 22 percent.

We think it needs to go down for everybody, Brownell said. And not just a little, but way down.

Coca-Cola disputed the findings of the study, noting that the company markets no product to children under the age of 12, company spokeswoman Diana Garza Ciarlante told the IBTimes in a statement.

This means that we do not buy advertising directly targeted at audiences that are made up of more than 35 percent children under 12, Ciarlante said. This policy applies to all of our beverage brands and to a wide range of media outlets including television, radio and print, as well as cinema, the Internet, product placement and mobile phones.

Ciarlante also pointed to a contradictory study published in August 2011 by the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. The study found that between 2003 and 2009, the largest decreases in advertising targeted at children were in beverages. And when considering all beverages, soft drinks saw the most decline in advertising.

Clearly, our Company and our industry are committed to responsible advertising and the numbers prove it, Ciarlante said.

Kraft Foods, another company targeted in the study released Monday with products like Capri Sun and Kool-Aid, said in response that it was the first company to alter its advertising to children under the age of 12. For example, it stopped advertising Oreo cookies and regular Kool-Aid. According to the study, Kraft's total advertising was up 3 percent from 2008-10.

Kraft spokesman Richard Buino said in a statement that the company refuses to advertise any products to children under 6, and only products that meet specific nutrition requirements for ages 6 to 11.

All told, we have a comprehensive policy in place that covers many forms of media -- from TV, magazines and radio, to video games, internet and social media - as well as others, Buino said.

Among the more striking highlights emerging from the study and its conclusions:

  • Brownell called advertising practices of some companies misleading, considering the amount of drinks he said were dressed up by companies to look healthy and related to fruit. Many of these drinks, he said, don't have any fruit at all and very little fruit juice. You almost have to be some kind of a sleuth to figure out what's in these things, he said.
  • Teenagers are exposed more to energy drinks -- 18 percent on television, 46 percent on radio -- than adults, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no consumption of energy drinks in teenagers' diets. They've essentially taken a whole generation of kids and convinced them they need these energy drinks. Sugar and caffeine -- it's a bad combination for public health when we're concerned about obesity.
  • Though much of the soft-drink industry pledged self-regulation in decreasing marketing to children and teenagers, many are targeting that demographic at increased rates.

George Hacker, a senior policy adviser for health promotion at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the study was evidence that the government's hands-off approach to regulation of soft-drink companies wasn't the correct approach.

You basically get the sense that these companies want the government out of the way so they can continue to target a growth population that is necessary for their product lines and their product sales to grow, Hacker told the IBTimes.

Also examined in the study, in part, is the growing means of alternative marketing. That includes social media like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

For example, Red Bull's YouTube uploads attracted more than 158 million views during the study's period. Coca-Cola had about 37.5 million fans on Facebook and almost 340,000 followers on Twitter. Those were the highs in those categories for soft-drink companies.

The precise results of social media's effects are immeasurable. But Brownell said they're important considering the amount of interaction a teenager can have with an online Web site, ad or video from a soft-drink company when compared to a television ad.

Television advertisements last for a half minute, Brownell said. A teenager could be online for a half hour. New forms of advertising through social media can also be viral. And they're extremely cost effective.

The study was performed over a year, during which the research team gathered product data from companies and television data from Nielsen, Brownell said. He said it was the most extensive study ever done on the subject, and the first to analyze data from a variety of sources, including Nielsen.

Write to b.logiurato@ibtimes.com.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to include a response from Coca-Cola and Kraft Foods.

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