Their sophisticated online marketing efforts are drawing children into playing hundreds of free Internet games featuring their favorite foods, such as Chips Ahoy Soccer Shootout, Pop-Tart Slalom and Cheetos Cowtapult, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study.
These food "advergames" are less widespread than TV commercials but involve children more deeply and for longer periods. They come at a time when obesity in youngsters is on the rise.
Web sites give children many opportunities to interact with candy bars, cereals and snack foods in an entertaining, branded environment, said the foundation's Vicky Rideout, who oversaw the research.
"Online advertising is potentially way more powerful than television advertising ever dreamed of being," Rideout said.
In addition to playing games, kids can also watch special Internet-only commercials, such as "webisodes" in which Toucan Sam and his nephews seek Froot Loops treasure and Lucky's adventures away from his Lucky Charms. Kids can also e-mail friends about Web sites.
Among the top food brands that use television to target kids, 85 percent also use Web sites, the study found. Researchers reviewed 77 Web sites containing more than 4,000 unique pages.
The sites were visited more than 12.2 million times during the second quarter of last year, the study said.
The study did not say whether online marketing is considered good or bad for children. The research is intended to aid the government and the industry as they consider regulating this form of marketing to children.
Junk food marketing to kids was the subject of a stinging report last year by the congressionally chartered Institute of Medicine.
Panel members stopped short of blaming TV advertising for obesity in kids. But they said the evidence of a direct link was so compelling, only healthy foods should be marketed to kids.
Dangerous weight is on the rise in children, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate of obese and overweight kids has climbed to 18 percent of boys and 16 percent of girls, up from 14 percent four years ago.