Childhood Advertising: Food Marketers Want Your Kids to Eat Their Products

Advertising directed toward kids has contributed to the childhood obesity epidemic. Should companies be allowed to shamelessly target children? What can parents do to limit their kids' exposure to advertisements?

Ronald McDonald. Cap'n Crunch. Toucan Sam. Tony the Tiger.

The most popular icons in food advertising conjure childhood memories for many of us. But these ever-familiar images are ingrained in our minds because they have been ever-present in our lives. McDonald's is as big a part of American culture as the American flag itself, and companies like Kellogg's, that use cartoons to market cereals like Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes, have been ubiquitous in the rise of the industrial food system.

I'm currently reading nutritionist and New York University Professor Marion Nestle's Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. In Chapter 8, Nestle describes tactics used by food company marketers to lure children to eat their products.

One might think that childhood marketing wouldn't be something that companies would want to readily admit, but they seem to be pretty shameless in their approach. In fact, Nestle notes that advertisers use gimics directed to children as young as age two.

Regardless of how immoral and shameless such tactics may seem, marketers use this rationale: Children comprise a multi-billion dollar market, and what better way to instill brand loyalty and increase lifetime profits than by marketing to the youngest, most vulnerable members of society?

Nestle quotes one marketer saying, "Kids are a growing demographic and [the companies] are trying to get in on the ground floor." Another marketing strategist defended childhood advertising as "nothing less than primary education in commercial life."

Nestle cites various venues of childhood advertising. From food packaging to television and magazine ads to Pepsico and Coca Cola contracts with schools, children are constantly bombarded by advertisements that aim to convince them to eat and drink certain products.

In such a ruthless environment, one might wonder who is on the side of the consumer. Organizations like the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood make valiant efforts to educate the public and advocate on the side of parents, but sadly, those in power often side with the powerful food lobby and consequently do little to restrict corporations that target children.

In April, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), stating that childhood obesity is "the most serious health crisis facing today's youth," announced that it would take measures to encourage food marketers to advertise healthier foods to children.

“Children are strongly influenced by the foods they see advertised on television and elsewhere. Creating a food marketing environment that supports, rather than undermines, the efforts of parents to encourage healthy eating among children will have a significant impact on reducing the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Nestle notes in Food Politics that childhood obesity "results from complex interactions of societal, economic demographic and environmental changes that not only encourage people to eat more food than needed to meet these energy requirements, but also encourage people to make less healthful food choices and act as barriers to physical activity."

The FTC's efforts, in my opinion, don't go far enough to address advertising directed at children. Instead of saying, "Childhood advertising is wrong," the FTC instead is soliciting the input of the very companies that have a profit motive and only encouraging the marketing of healthier foods to kids.

It's this type of compromising that, when combined with parents' lack of knowledge, has put the health of our nation's children in jeopardy.

When a child sees 10 advertisements on TV in just one day for a snack food that's made up of corn syrup, preservatives and colorings, it seems likely that the child will want to eat that food. But would that same child see 10 advertisements on any given day for apples, green beans and whole grain rice? Probably not.

In this month's issue of Pedatrics, the link between childhood obesity and media is examined, with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) calling for a ban on junk food advertising.

"Ads for junk food and fast food increase kids’ desire for these foods," the AAP said in a statement.

“American society couldn’t do a worse job at the moment of keeping children fit and healthy – too much TV, too many food ads, not enough exercise, and not enough sleep," said Victor Strasburger, MD, FAAP, a member of the AAP Council on Communications and Media and lead author of the statement.

“Thirty years ago, the federal government ruled that young children are psychologically defenseless against advertising.  Now, kids see 5,000 to 10,000 food ads per year, most of them for junk food and fast food,” said Strasburger.

So, just as Nestle says that marketers defend childhood advertising on the grounds of free speech, parents should be encouraged to act on their own free will by doing whatever they can to reduce the amount of advertisements to which their children are exposed.

These are my recommendations:

  • Buy store brand foods and shop local. This way your children won't see cartoons and other appealing figures on the boxes of food in your home. Ideally, purchase most of your food from a farmers market or local food co-op.
  • Limit TV time, and consider cancelling your cable package. Children can't be subjected to marketing if they're not watching TV.
  • Encourage a "know your food" attitude. Teach your kids about where their food comes from and how to read ingredient labels. The food industry's profits are based largely in what consumers don't know, so if you can't figure out how to pronounce an ingredient, you probably don't want your kids eating it!
Cadeyrn July 05, 2011 at 02:23 PM
"Also, if you haven't noticed, our president is a centrist with a compromise agenda and the House is stocked with hard-right Republicans." What a crock.
Cadeyrn July 05, 2011 at 04:45 PM
Planned Parenthood is an abortion mill. It barges into families and professes to know what is suitable in a certain situation ... and it seeks to exclude parents from decision-making choices by their own children. It should not garner a single dollar of tax revenues. Ryan's plan is one of harsh realism. At least that plan acknowledges the hard facts that you folks insist on kicking down the road. Got a better plan? State it. And, by the way, try a solution ... for once! ... that doesn't include a tax increase. Try spending cuts. Taxes strangle growth. Get out of the way of corporations. Businesses seek two things: profit and expansion. Profit generates revenues and expansion generates employment ... that then feeds revenues and generates more growth. It's Eco 101. . The stimulus? Shovel-ready jobs? The government can't even spend money properly ... but they tell us they need more and more. They're nothing but a giant money-slurping, wasteful crowd of folks who assume they know more than everyone else. Obama is intent on expanding entitlements beyond the absolutely vital ... and he and his minions have made dependency a national past-time. Tan palms from coast-to-coast.
Randall Brown July 05, 2011 at 05:48 PM
I am not afraid of my children becoming a "capitalist TV zombies". I can control and educated them about the implications of junk food and how advertising is often misleading. I want them to have the ability to think critically and make wise decisions for themselves. And in the end, it is mine and my wife's decision on what they eat. Of her three tips that "call for more thoughtful personal action", only the last one is hints at taking responsibility for my own actions rather than shielding my offspring from the real world. It is this attitude that always leads to "There ought to be a law......" Remember, Tony the Tiger is not an authority figure. I have a harder time deprogramming them when they come home from school after enduring a politically-driven agenda for hours a day than I do educating them on eating healthy. I am only casting aspersions on those people who are always trying to tell me what to do.l...whether that be Michelle Obama or anyone else.
Greg Tart July 06, 2011 at 08:10 PM
Well, Dan, the article certainly quotes quite a few people who would like to see a ban on Happy Meals. Many "Greens" are very good at bogus studies indicating foods are loaded with pesticides. They go further and oppose cheap power such as nuclear power, gas extraction- millions of dollars bankroll the Sierra Club, RiverKeeper et cetera. They teach our children, not balance, but rejection of our society.
Greg Tart July 06, 2011 at 11:20 PM
. Should companies be allowed to shamelessly target children? is the headline of the article; so implicity the article entertains banning food advertising. So Dan's "the article doesn't call for greater regulation" is false. Incidentally, food stamps can be used at farmers market, so we are subsidizing "organic" farming- not just soy beans. Maybe Dan should get his hero the fighting "hit and run" Attorney General of New York to go after Tony the Tiger


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »