Soft drink makers target U.S. youth online: study

Mon Oct 31, 2011 9:40pm EDT

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(Reuters) U.S. children and teenagers are seeing far more soda advertising than before, with blacks and Hispanics the major targets, as marketers have expanded online, according to a study released on Monday.

The report from the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity also said many fruit and energy drinks, which are popular with teenagers, have as much added sugar and as many calories as regular soda.

"Our children are being assaulted by these drinks that are high in sugar and low in nutrition," said Yale's Kelly Brownell, co-author of the report. "The companies are marketing them in highly aggressive ways."

Children's and teens' exposure to full-calorie soda ads on television doubled from 2008 to 2010, fueled by increases from Coca-Cola Co and Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc, the report found.

Children were exposed to 22 percent fewer ads for sugary PepsiCo Inc drinks, it said.

Black children and teens saw 80 percent to 90 percent more ads than white children, including twice as many for the 5-Hour Energy drink and Coca-Cola's vitamin water and Sprite.

Hispanic children saw 49 percent more ads for sugary drinks and energy drinks on Spanish-language television, and Hispanic teens saw 99 percent more ads.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 15 percent of children are overweight or obese. Children today are likely to have shorter life spans than their parents, which would affect their ability to work and pay taxes, while threatening to drive up healthcare costs.

When it comes to energy drinks such as Red Bull and Amp, the marketing is skewed toward young people, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics says such highly caffeinated beverages are not appropriate for children and adolescents, the report said.

In 2010, teens saw 18 percent more TV ads and heard 46 percent more radio ads for energy drinks than adults did.

The American Beverage Association, whose members include soft drink companies, disputed the study's findings as it also battles proposed taxes on sugary drinks and public health campaigns aimed at reducing consumption.

"This report is another attack by known critics in an ongoing attempt to single out one product as the cause of obesity when both common sense and widely accepted science have shown that the reality is far more complicated," the group's Chief Executive Officer Susan Neely said in a statement.

Neely said member companies are "delivering on their commitment to advertise only water, juice and milk on programing for children under 12."

She cited recent research conducted by Georgetown Economic Services, an economic consulting firm that is a subsidiary of law firm Kelley Drye & Warren, and sponsored by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Association of National Advertisers.

That research showed that between 2004 and 2010, advertisements for soft drinks decreased by 96 percent, while those for fruit and vegetable juices increased by 199 percent.

Brownell, an outspoken critic of the food and beverage industries, said there has been a lot of research on the issue of marketing unhealthy food to children, especially since U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama made fighting childhood obesity her signature issue.

Monday's report, he said, is the first that analyzed data from several firms, including Nielsen Holdings NV, to measure the full picture of youth exposure to marketing and advertising.

Brownell said it is important to consider the online interaction children have with brands, especially since they tend to stay on computers longer than they watch TV commercials.

The report shows, for example, that 21 sugary drink brands had YouTube channels in 2010, with more than 229 million views by June 2011. Coca-Cola was the most popular brand on Facebook, with more than 30 million fans.

The most-visited websites operated by soft drink brands were MyCokeRewards.com and Capri Sun, which is owned by Kraft Foods Inc.

Coca-Cola said it has a policy of not marketing to children younger than 12.

"This means that we do not buy advertising directly targeted at audiences that are made up of more than 35 percent children under 12," Coca-Cola said in a statement. "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."

Other findings in the report include an analysis of the drinks themselves. For example, it said an 8-ounce (225-gram) serving of a full-calorie fruit drink has 110 calories and seven teaspoons of sugar -- the same amount found in an 8-ounce serving of a soda or energy drink.

The full report is available at www.sugarydrinkfacts.org.

(Reporting by Martinne Geller in New York; Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles and Brad Dorfman in Chicago; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Lisa Von Ahn)

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