WASHINGTON DC: Digital marketing campaigns targeted at youngsters have come under scrutiny by US advocacy groups, keen to persuade the federal government to probe deeper into 'junk' food advertising and promos directed at children.

The Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Center for Digital Democracy have issued a new report - Interactive Food & Beverage Marketing: Targeting Children and Youth in the Digital Age - which widens the debate from television to non-traditional media.

Marketing campaigns under the report's microscope are: McDonald's mobile marketing drive; Coca-Cola's ringtone promotion; a Wendy's viral video on YouTube; and Mars' online webisodes to promote its Snickers brand.

The report's authors urge that the Federal Trade Commission question advertisers more closely about their use of digital platforms during its ongoing investigation of food marketing practices.[WARC News: 20-Apr-07].

States the study: "As our research shows, major food and beverage brands are utilizing a variety of new venues—including cellphones, instant messaging, video games, user-generated video, and three-dimensional virtual worlds—in their efforts to target children and adolescents and to foster ongoing personal relationships with them, often under the radar of parents."

Consumer groups believe legislation must play a part in the regulation of such marketing which, they claim, is fueling the US childhood obesity epidemic.

Unsurprisingly, advertisers strongly disagree. They argue that improvements in self-regulation negate the need for any legislative intervention.

Ripostes Dan Jaffe, evp of government relations for the Association of National Advertisers: "Advertisers have very high responsibilities when we advertise to children. We have created very extensive and strong self-regulatory policies about how we advertise to children in any media."

And lawyer John Feldman, a lawyer who represents the ANA, adds: "Marketers know they are dealing with children in different ways. This is not the Wild West. We have a self-regulatory system that is applied to all media."

Data sourced from Adweek (USA); additional content by WARC staff