Marketers selling food to children and teens spent 20 percent less in 2009 than they did in 2006 and are making "modest nutritional improvements" to the products they promote, according to a new government report.
Advertisers shelled out nearly $1.8 billion to target consumers ages 2 to 17, down from the $2.1 billion they allocated three years earlier, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
But most of the decline came from a switch to online commercials from expensive television spots. Spending on youth food marketing for new media — which includes Internet, mobile and viral spots — soared 50 percent, according to the report.
But at least companies are making more of an effort to hawk more healthful foods to young consumers, according to the report. The FTC compiled its information partly through subpoenas of 48 major food and beverage marketers.
Cereals aimed at children had less sugar and slightly more whole grain in 2009; marketing of uber-sweet cereals with 13 grams or more of sugar per serving was "virtually eliminated," according to the report.
Fast-food "kids meals" are now more nutritious than other quick-service meals, it said.
Advertised beverages had fewer calories, it said, but still averaged more than 20 grams of added sugar per serving. Water and pure juices made up only 16 percent of the drinks marketed to kids and 8 percent of the ones directed at teens.
Cross-promotions between food and popular children's movies and television characters boomed to 120 films and shows in 2009 from 80 in 2006, the report said. The strategy was used for films such as Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and characters such as SpongeBob SquarePants.
Focusing on kids instead of their parents has been productive for the food marketing community. Ads and packaging help generate what the FTC calls "pester power," in which children badger their caretakers to buy a product.
"The encouraging news is that we're seeing promising signs that food companies are reformulating their products and marketing more nutritious foods to kids, especially among companies participating in industry self-regulatory efforts," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in a statement. "But there is still room for improvement."