Facts About Marketing Food to Children

Do you ever wonder about all the seemingly innocuous food advertisements our children view when perusing their favorite television shows? Whether you do or you don’t, I’d like to suggest you think about the advertisements for food (and beverages) that came up the last time you caught a football game on television. Do visions of beer, or chips, or wings come to mind? Now, consider the advertisements your children see when they watch their favorite television programs. Are they ads for bananas? Perhaps heads of fresh broccoli come to mind… or not.

Food is big business. Packaged food, that is. So big, in fact, that a 2012 U.S. Federal Trade Commission report estimated that the food industry spent — Whoa! — approximately $1.8 billion in food and beverage marketing to children and adolescents, and over $9 billion in marketing to all audiences (McClure et al, 2013). It turns out that young people are considered an important target market for food advertising because of their purchasing power.

That’s right — our children have purchasing power. And they exercise it through us. 

Food manufacturers also recognize the tremendous potential for shaping life-long eating patterns and food preferences, so they don’t want to miss out on theopportunity to plant their brand images in the brains of our young ones. Pretty slick, huh?

WHAT’S THE HARM?

Decades of studies show that food marketing works — just ask your child what he or she wants to eat after seeing a commercial for Pop-Tarts. Children want the products they see advertised, and those most often advertised are not-so-healthy. In fact, reports show the vast majority of youth-directed food ads promote fast food, carbonated beverages, and  ereals, snacks and candy that are high in fat, sugar, or sodium (Powell et al, 2013). Exposure to marketing of calorie-dense foods is now recognized as a probable risk factor for obesity (McClure et al, 2013). Yikes!

WHAT CAN WE DO?

The Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University offers recommendations for what we, as parents, can do at home to limit our children’s exposure to food marketing. Consider these suggestions, all of which are really no-brainers:

1) Limit your child’s television viewing, particularly your preschooler. 

Children under age 7 or 8 years are even more influenced by advertising than older children. If they watch television, PBS is your best bet. In general, though, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting all screen time (that’s TV, computer, video games, and hand-held devices) to less than two hours per day. The rewards are two-fold: reduced inactivity and limited exposure to advertising.

2) If you have a television, keep it in a shared family space instead of your child’s bedroom.

The facts speak for themselves on this topic. TVs in bedrooms = unintended consequences of weight problems and sleep disruption. It’s just not a good idea to keep televisions in the bedrooms of kiddos. 

3) Teach your child about marketing. 

Older kids catch on to marketing ploys if you raise their awareness. Tell them about the tactics of using free toys, movie characters, and animated figures used to get buy-ins nd brand loyalty. They’ll wise up in no time, and probably teach you a thing or two about not being a chump to marketing. 

GOOD NEWS

The above suggestions are effective steps we can take in our own homes that allow us to feel at least some sense of control. In addition, some recent good news is that Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association have joined forces in a two-year agreement to help promote fresh fruit and vegetable consumption to kids. As a result, we can look forward to familiar characterslike Big Bird and Elmo gracing the skin of fresh produce beginning in 2014. Who can pass up an apple with a Big Bird sticker on it?

And finally, while it’s good to know thatr esearchers and independent groups monitor and evaluate food marketing to determine additional efforts needed to reduce unhealthy marketing practices, there is still much work to be done. We ca nall do our part, and parents are still the greatest influence on their children’s food choices. Be an “advertiser” for healthy food choices in your home and community, and in your child’s school.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

If you’re interested in learning more on this subject, check out the following resources:

Center on Media and Child Health

Center for Science in the Public Interest

Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood

Anne Marie Kuchera, our Kids Plus Nutrition Consultant, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Dietitian.