Companies Exploiting Socially-networked Children To Push Junk Food Like Drug Dealers

In response to recent bans on junk food advertising in the U.K., junk food manufacturers like Fanta, which is part of Coca-Cola, have found a loophole to the restriction.

Producers are paying children the equivalent of roughly $40 a week to plug company products to their friends through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

A recruitment site where thousands of kids as young as seven years old can take surveys to help companies formulate products is now luring them to promote brands and product lines to their friends in exchange for discount coupons and free samples. The site is encouraging children to put up flyers for products, write endorsements on message boards and social networking sites, and even host product parties for their friends.

While there are some safeguards in place for younger children, including mandatory parental consent for children under 12, many are concerned that the practice exploits children and promotes unhealthy food products that are causing widespread illness and obesity.

Social networking can be a powerful and useful tool for conducting business, but the practice of luring young children to promote questionable products is becoming increasingly problematic. Many record labels are now employing the same tactic to get children to promote various pop stars and music groups.

Ed Mayo, co-author of Consumer Kids, a book on children and marketing, is strongly against the practice of companies hiring “youth ambassadors” to promote their products. “About 85 percent of children’s favorite websites collect some sort of personal information,” he explained, noting that more than half a million children have already been enrolled in some sort of online marketing program.

The U.K. Food Standards Agency (FSA) has indicated that it plans to utilize company databases to send messages to children about the importance of eating a healthy diet. With more than a third of U.K. children being overweight and a great many deficient in vital minerals and nutrients, the agency hopes to exert some positive influence in response to the situation.

Authorities gave no indication that any action would be taken against the practice. Though U.K. law has established restrictive limits on junk food advertising on television, there are no such restrictions for internet advertising.

Rather than demand ever-more government intervention to obstruct the market, parents can and should get more involved in their children’s lives to discourage participation in online marketing programs and teach them to eat better.



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