Food Marketing to Kids: What Every Parent Should Know

This is a guest post by Karen Le Billon. It originally appeared here.

Here’s a summary of some alarming (and fascinating) research I’ve been doing for my new book, Getting to Yum (to be published in the spring of 2014).

Our ability to teach our children to love healthy food has been increasingly undermined by food marketing, which is now a multi-billion dollar industry, using techniques that have become increasingly sophisticated. American kids are exposed to over 40,000 food ads per year– most of which are for fast food, cereal, and candy. And these ads work: marketing has a measurable effect on increasing consumption (if it didn’t, why would these food companies spend all of this money?). Alarmingly, research suggests that young kids—who are the most responsive to marketing messages—don’t usually understand the ‘advertising’ aspect of marketing messages, can’t discriminate between advertising and programming, and are more influenced by ads than by parental preferences.

What do these ads tell our kids? That unhealthy eating (e.g., frequent snacking on calorie-dense and nutrient-poor food) is normal, fun, positive, and socially rewarding. That most kids eat this way most of the time. That most parents allow this behavior—and, in fact, demonstrate their love through, for example, taking trips to McDonald’s restaurants. That super-sized portions are the norm. That the foods they should be eating are laden with salt, sugar, and fat—a combination that triggers our brain’s pleasure centers and encourages over-eating. And they don’t tell our kids about the negative effects of eating unhealthy foods, including low energy levels, weight gain, and long-term health effects. The foods advertised on TV are, by and large, unbalanced and fattening, but the actors and characters all look slim and healthy.

And the message isn’t only on TV. Most parents know that the majority of ads during kids primetime TV watching hours aren’t exactly focused on spinach and broccoli (one study found that 9 out of 10 Saturday morning ads were for junk food). But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Celebrity endorsements, product placement, discount pricing, increased container sizes are all used to encourage increased consumption. (Those candy bars at the checkout in your local grocery store? Chances are that a food company has paid the supermarket to place them there, right at kids’ eye level.)

Food advertising has also moved online in a big way, as it’s both cheaper and a means of exposing kids to more advertising than on TV. The majority of top websites used by children contain food marketing (sometimes deeply embedded). Others encourage kids to continue the ‘brand experience’ after leaving the site—through screensavers or desktop logos. Food companies also use “advergaming”—blurring the boundaries between games and advertising. Some are relatively simple—much like other smartphone games, but with (say) a piece of cereal as the game piece. In “Jell-O Jiggle It,” kids can get a cube of Jell-O to dance. “Sour Fling” asks them to fling virtual Sour Patch Kids candies past obstacles. Or they can lick virtual lollipops in “Dum Dums Flick-A-Pop” (originally designed as “Lick-A-Pop”, before Apple complained that iphones could be damaged by too much saliva); the app has been downloaded 1.5 million times. A step up in complexity is “Candy Sports,” in which players can hit baseballs at a Skittles logo, play basketball in an arena plastered with Life Savers Gummies, and kick footballs into a Starburst sign. The self-explanatory “Cookie Dough Bites Factory” has been downloaded more than 3 million times.

Full-blown websites have more complex games, like Nestle’s Nesquik Imagination Station (hosted by a cute rabbit character, with a quiz game and spacesuit-making guide) or the imaginary McWorld on HappyMeals.com–complete with treehouse games for younger kids (pick your own Mc-Avatar!) and a sci-fi movie and book series for older kids. Sound silly? HappyMeals.com had 350,000 visitors in one single month in 2011. One website (General Mills Millsberry) had over 60 games targeted at kids.

Marketers also target adolescents on popular social media sites (like Facebook and Twitter), via smartphones, viral marketing (e.g. videos passed from one friend to another), and even through sophisticated techniques like downloadable ‘widgets’ (small applications downloaded to a child’s own computer or phone that allow companies to deliver targeted ads to users and their friends). These approaches target adolescent developmental needs–like bonding with friends and establishing their own identity—and are thus hard to resist, and potentially more dangerous than traditional forms of advertising, because they seek to elicit emotional responses and hence deep loyalty to brands (rather than cognitive consumer choices that are the focus of traditional persuasive advertising). Kids in high school, for example, often use brands and refer to brand stereotypes to construct their self-image.

This is now of such concern to policy-makers that US Congress recently asked the top medical research agency in the country—the Center for Disease Control and Prevention–to study the link between obesity and food marketing to children. The resulting Institute of Medicine study, Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity, makes for chilling reading. The report found that food marketing intentionally targets children who are too young to distinguish between ‘truth’ and ‘advertising’. And the inducements to eat low nutrient, high-calorie “junk” foods work extremely well; in some studies, children are more persuaded by these ads than by parental guidance. Some researchers now believe that the effects of marketing on our subconscious, ‘automatic’ behaviors are widespread and long lasting. In watching these ads, we may be literally programming our children’s for a lifetime of unhealthy eating.

The report also documents the tactics used by food marketing companies to make their messages compelling. Food marketing companies conduct extensive research on children (even preschoolers). To improve their ability to leverage children’s suggestibility, they explore the psychological underpinnings of children’s food choices, probing and testing “child archetypes” (to get their spokes-characters just right), and figuring out ways to help kids leverage or subvert the “psyche of mothers as the family gatekeeper.” Marketing strategies have proliferated, and gotten subtler, targeting ‘cool’ messages at some age groups and ‘cute’ messages at others, until heavily marketed brands become central to children’s sense of identity and self. Scary.

Of course, marketers argue that advertising is free speech, and also argue that their work is good for business. Those same arguments were used for cigarette marketing to children—and are arguments we should no longer accept, as Marion Nestle has brilliantly argued in her book Food Politics. But the power of the food industry is such that the regulatory controls that exist in some countries—like France, where vending machines, fast food, and food advertising of any kind are banned in all schools—are far from universal. Of course, marketing is a legitimate business activity. But if it encourages children to over-eat unhealthy foods, don’t policies like those implemented in France make sense for all of us?

In the absence of such regulations, what’s a parent to do? Of course, you can reduce the marketing messages your kids are exposed to. Setting limits on ‘screen time’ has, in itself, been shown to be beneficial for kid’s health. This is, in part, because exposure to food advertising (with its ‘snacking = enjoyment’ messages) increases calories consumed during and immediately afterwards—irrespective of whether or not kids were actually hungry. (This is true for adults too, by the way.)

There are more positive techniques you can use to counter food marketing messages. More about these in a subsequent post! And I’d also recommend you check out Marion Nestle’s excellent website: http://www.foodpolitics.com.

Some other great suggestions from readers: Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and the Berenstein Bears’ book: “The Trouble with Commercials.”

Born in Montreal and based in Vancouver, Karen Le Billon is the author of French Kids Eat Everything, and professor at the University of British Columbia. Married to a Frenchman, she has two daughters, and her family divides its time between Vancouver and France. Her new book (“Getting to Yum”) will be published by HarperCollins in 2014.

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  • Srini

    Where is the Facebook like button on this article :)

  • Charles Crevequer
  • http://www.supermom101.com/ SuperMom101

    Terrific post! Haven’t been to a MacDonald’s in probably 10 years and took our 13 year old son through the window after a late baseball game. He ordered a medium french fries and it came in a big red box. I said, “Oh, they gave you a large by accident.” He said, “this is the medium.” The portion was huge! At least twice as big as what I remember as a kid.

    Had a niece lose over 70 pounds when she stopped drinking the high calorie, nutritionally void frozen drinks – she had no idea that one drink was nearly a day’s worth of calories. (She also changed to much better eating habits when she discovered what she was really eating and drinking.)

    Any one else find it strange that America (and her children) have never been fatter or sicker and we can’t seem to figure out why?

    Looking forward to reading your book the Spring of 2014.

    Best health always,
    SuperMom-in-Training

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