Big companies stand accused of selling junk food to children behind their parents' backs with a variety of "underhand" tricks, despite claiming only to use responsible marketing methods.
A report yesterday from the consumer organisation Which? found that a dozen multinationals had been using up to 20 different marketing ploys to push unhealthy products. Some companies bypassed parental control by using new technology such as viral marketing campaigns which encourage children to e-mail each other cartoons or spoof adverts with a brand message. Others offered free toys or ran promotional tie-ins with popular children's films.
For six months this year, researchers monitored the marketing practices of 12 companies: Coca-Cola, Kraft, Cadbury Schweppes, Kellogg's, Burger King, KFC, McDonald's, Haribo, Nestlé, Masterfoods, Weetabix and Pepsico.
Although the companies stated publicly that they carefully targeted adult customers, Which? found that promotions for sugary, fatty or salty food included "educational" worksheets on chocolate, and competition prizes that appealed to primary school children.
Although Coca-Cola said it did not advertise any of its products to under-12s, Which? found the company ran special promotional packs of the sugary drink Capri-Sunto coincide with the launch of the children's animated film Ice Age 2. Sponsorship of the football World Cup and a website featuring Wayne Rooney enhanced Coke's appeal to the young.
Interviews by Which? with 50 children aged between five and 15 established that the marketing had made a strong impression. Children associated Coca-Cola with the positive image of the World Cup. "They're linked together, they stay together," said one child, aged five. "The signs on TV say Coca-Cola and football is good for you," said another.
KFC said it had not targeted children with advertising for years. Yet the fast-food chain gave away collectible toys with its children's meals, sponsored Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, and had a tie-in with the Nickelodeon cartoon Barnyard.
The world's biggest food company, Nestlé, was found to have engaged children in nine different categories of dubious marketing, from a milkshake website with children's games, to football-related gifts in its high-sugar Golden Nuggets cereal.
Nick Stace, Which? campaigns director, said food marketers were using "sophisticated, underhand techniques" to target children behind their parents' backs. "The approach of a number of companies is to go around the back door to go direct to children," he said. "There is a sense that parents are left out in the cold. They can't necessarily control the messages that their children are receiving. In many instances the companies are sticking to the letter of what they are saying but they are not sticking to the spirit of what they are saying."Which? wants a pre-9pm ban on TV commercials for junk food - a measure rejected by Ofcom last week - and a ban on other promotions for under-16s.
Julian Hunt, director of communications at the Food and Drink Federation, said: "It's disappointing that... Which? has decided to generate cheap headlines which don't really help to take the debate forward."
* Burger King promoted kid's meals with tie-ins to Superman Returns, X-Men 3and SpongeBob SquarePants
* Resource packs from Cadbury had titles including 'mixing, melting and making' and 'the world of chocolate'
* Haribo encouraged children to enter a £2.99 club where they received sweets, a soft toy and news of competitions
* Masterfoods advertised its Starburst sweets in teenagers magazines
* McDonald's ran film tie-ins and has signed a new deal with Dreamworks
* Wrappers of the Nestle chocolate bar Milky Way promised children would enjoy the 'fun puzzle inside'.