Several consumer advocacy organizations have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) based on a report that “identifies, analyzes, and documents a set of digital marketing practices that pose particular threats to children and youth, especially when used to promote foods that are high in fat, sugars, and salt, which are known to contribute to child and adolescent obesity.” The complaint specifically targets PepsiCo and Frito-Lay, focusing on promotions for Doritos®.

According to the complainants, “Frito-Lay has infiltrated the lives of teens by developing covert advertising campaigns centered on things teens love—video games, music, horror, sports, contests, and social networking.” They further contend that (i) “Frito-Lay disguises its marketing campaigns as entertaining video games, concerts, and other immersive forms of entertainment, thus making it more difficult for teens to recognize them as marketing and to be skeptical about the messages they present”; (ii) “Frito-Lay claims to protect teens’ privacy but fails to do so. The campaigns also collect and use teens’ personal information without meaningful notice and consent”; and (iii) “Frito-Lay uses viral marketing in ways that violate the FTC endorsement guidelines.”

Seeking an FTC investigation into their allegations, the complainants argue that “teens are uniquely vulnerable to the kinds of deceptive techniques used by Frito-Lay because of certain physiological and psychological traits associated with adolescence.” They claim that the marketing campaigns are affecting purchasing decisions, “evident from both the increased sales of Doritos and the fact that to play the game or enjoy the concert, the consumer is often required to purchase Doritos.”

The report released with the complaint was prepared by the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity. Titled “Digital Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents,” the report addresses “five categories of digital marketing techniques that are used routinely by fast food, snack food, and soft drink companies to target children and adolescents.” They purportedly include (i) “Augmented reality, online gaming, virtual environments, and other immersive techniques that can induce ‘flow,’ reduce conscious attention to marketing techniques, and foster impulsive behaviors”; (ii) “Social media techniques that include surveillance of users’ online behaviors without notification, as well as viral brand promotion”; (iii) “Data collection and behavioral profiling designed to deliver personalized marketing to individuals without sufficient user knowledge or control”; (iv) “Location targeting and mobile marketing, which follow young peoples’ movements and are able to link point of influence to point of purchase”; and (v) “Neuromarketing, which employs neuroscience methods to develop digital marketing techniques designed to trigger subconscious, emotional arousal.”  

The organizations filing the FTC complaint are the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Action, Consumer Watchdog, and Praxis Project.