Just before Christmas, and ever so quietly, the Federal Trade Commission released a review [PDF] of corporate food marketing to kids. The FTC hasn’t examined this kind of data since 2006, so this was its chance to check up on the processed food and beverage industry’s much-ballyhooed self-regulation of food advertising aimed at young kids and teens. The data for the new report is from 2009. The upshot? Food marketing to kids totaled $1.79 billion and went down a skosh from 2006 levels.

Does this mean corporate self-regulation is working? Not at all. First off, in 2009 this country was in the teeth of the Great Recession, so all marketing spending was down. The good intentions of food companies may have had little to do with the drop. But what’s more interesting is the fact that food companies shifted spending away from television advertising and toward online and social media spending.

Food companies spent 19.5 percent less on television ads and 60 percent more online between 2006 and 2009. Because TV ads are so expensive, reducing them explains most of the overall drop in spending. But that doesn’t mean ads weren’t being seen; companies also get significant bang for the buck when they invest in online marketing — and they spent $122 million online in 2009. One can only imagine what that number looked like in 2012.

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According to the FTC, not only did food companies get 2.1 billion ad impressions on “child-oriented” websites across the internet in 2009, they also invested heavily in so-called “advergames,” and standalone websites and made a strong move into social media and viral marketing campaigns. From the FTC report:

Food marketers had their own Facebook and MySpace pages, links to Twitter accounts, dedicated portions of YouTube, and used other popular social media sites. Websites often included solicitations to “invite a friend” or “share with a friend”; in one case, a site urged advergame players to enlist friends through Facebook and Skype.

Keep in mind that the 2009 data predates the explosive growth in mobile and tablet apps. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in its coverage [subs req’d], companies are now beginning to “build smartphone and tablet apps featuring their brands.” The article goes on to observe that: “Several food-company executives said they saw these apps as a cost-effective and powerful way to reach children — in some cases before they could even learn to read.”

The point here is that a focus purely on dollars spent on advertising doesn’t take into account the way these brands work themselves into kids’ lives. And given that “pester power” is a very real phenomenon — 75 percent of first-time purchasers of a product did so at the request of a child — the effectiveness of corporate efforts to reach kids can’t be underestimated.

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And while food companies improved the nutritional quality of the food they advertised to kids (slightly), the FTC noted that the products most heavily marketed to kids were often the highest in sugar, salt, and fat. In fact, the report declares that “drinks marketed to children and teens averaged more than twenty grams of added sugar per serving in 2009.” In other words, most of that marketing money is going to selling liquid candy.

Should we care about all this? The answer, says the research, is a resounding yes. Food marketing plays a huge role in kids’ eating patterns. New research that was just published in the Journal of Pediatrics shows how pernicious the effect of this kind of marketing can be. Scientists from the University of Missouri performed a brain imaging study on obese and normal weight kids while showing them logos from popular junk-food brands. Here’s what they found:

When shown food logos, obese children showed significantly less brain activation than the healthy weight children in regions associated with cognitive control. This provides initial neuroimaging evidence that obese children may be more vulnerable to the effects of food advertising.

Now, we don’t know exactly how vulnerability to food advertising correlates with weight gain, but it appears to affect obese kids differently than it does normal weight kids. And that becomes part of the problem, since parents of the latter may not feel compelled to oppose advertising that doesn’t hurt their kids.

Making matters worse, even if you could restrict junk food advertising, you’d still have this sort of thing to contend with:

Pepsi and Beyonce are inviting fans to help make this year’s Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show one of the most memorable and compelling shows ever.

Beginning on Saturday, December 29th, fans are encouraged to submit photos of specific “poses” in hopes of being selected for a chance of a lifetime — to appear in an on-air introduction welcoming Beyonce to the stage for the Pepsi Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show.

Beyonce was also a major proponent for Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move anti-obesity campaign, having produced a video, a song, and a giveaway T-shirt. Oopsie.

Cue outrage, courtesy of New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle:

Beyoncé will now be marketing sugar-sweetened beverages, products increasingly linked to childhood obesity, especially among minority children.

This linkage is not a coincidence. Pepsi and other makers of sugary sodas deliberately and systematically market their products to low-income, minority children.

Beyoncé will now be part of that targeted marketing campaign.

If Beyoncé’s mission is to inspire young people of any color to look gorgeous and rise to the top, as she has done, she is now telling them that the way to get there — and to get rich — is to drink Pepsi. This untrue suggestion is, on its own, unethical.

Putting aside the $50 million Pepsi is paying Beyoncé (as hard as that might be to do), let’s say the government had passed restrictions on junk-food advertising aimed at kids. There’s no way you could structure regulations that would stop a deal like this — even though everyone knows who makes up Beyoncé’s audience. And it’s exactly this kind of thing that would become more prevalent as the market whizzes at food companies come up with ways to game regulations.

The sad fact is that Americans, on the whole, are pretty much OK with this state of affairs. A just-released survey from the Associated Press found that while Americans think obesity is a problem, most don’t think the government shouldn’t take aggressive actions such as bans or taxes to limit junk food.

Where does this leave our kids? Adrift in an ocean of marketing. And regulators don’t even seem able to give them a paddle.

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