Often promoted in conjunction with a popular new movie or television show, food ads that appeal to youth combine traditional media like television with previously unmeasured forms of marketing, such as packaging, in-store advertising, sweepstakes and the Internet.
Today at a Washington, D.C., YMCA, 12-year old Marcus Mills said, "Characters have a big impact on what kids want." He added that his cousin recently told him, "I want McDonalds because Ben 10 wants McDonalds."
Carbonated drinks, fast food and cereal were marketed to youth above all other food and beverages, comprising a total of 63 percent of overall spending, according to Mary Engle, director of the FTC's division of advertising practices.
"For some reason, I just like believe them like when they say, 'It's really good,' or like when they say, like, 'You have to have it, everybody likes it,'" said 10-year-old Jordana Smith. "I believe them."
Last year, 14 major food companies agreed to voluntary guidelines that change how and what they market to kids.
At the USDA's Center of Nutrition Policy and Promotion, executive director Brian Wansink said plenty of marketers are trying to do the right thing while making money.
"Companies aren't out there to make us fat, they're out there to try to make money and to make a profit," Wansink said. "And if they can do that by selling 17 times more broccoli than they do today, they'll figure a way to do that."
"It doesn't matter if the total number of dollars stays the same or goes up," Engle said. "What we'd like to see is these dollars spent towards promoting really nutritional foods to kids and promoting healthier lifestyles."
But the report did not go so far as to suggest marketing as the reason many children are overweight. It instead said the FTC has not addressed whether there's a link between marketing and childhood obesity.
Still, Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, "Kids grow up thinking that everybody is eating pizza, hamburgers, french fries, because that's what they see marketed to them, that's the food environment."