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Extension > Live Healthy, Live Well > Understanding How Foods Are Marketed to Children

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Understanding How Foods Are Marketed to Children

Be aware of the food marketing targeted at your child.
But Daddy, I need to have this sparkling star cereal. The princess on the box is soooo pretty! I saw on it television, and it comes with a glow-in-the-dark ring, too. Please, Daddy, please!

If you go grocery shopping with children, something like this has probably happened to you. Children often beg to buy a food product, like cereal, because of the influence of marketing and advertising targeted to them. Add peer pressure from friends who have seen the same commercials to the mix, and you have scenes like the one just described.

How Are Food Products Marketed to Children?


Food marketing occurs across a wide variety of media and formats, such as TV and the product packaging itself. Food ads feature a variety of tactics to get children's attention, including catchy jingles; colorful still images and fast-paced moving images; and use of celebrities or cartoon characters to endorse or represent the product. Cartoon characters may be from popular media, such as Disney characters, or characters created by the manufacturer, such as the Trix Rabbit or Captain Crunch.

Newer forms of media are also used to market and advertise food products to children, such as child-focused websites. These websites often contain banner or pop-up ads for food products. Clicking on an ad takes children directly to the manufacturer's website, where they can enter contests and watch videos featuring the branded product, or play "advergames" featuring a brand-name food product. Advergames combine online games with a food product. For example, a child might play an online game where points are earned by finding the hidden spokes-character.

Many food manufacturers are switching to Internet-based advertising over television: it costs less, and children spend more time playing online games than watching a 15- or 30-second TV commercial.

The Good News


While considerable marketing and advertising targeted to children still features unhealthy foods, a number of companies are beginning to promote healthier foods. For example,
  • Some fresh fruit and vegetable packages now feature licensed cartoon characters.
  • Some restaurants include fruit and milk with children's meals, rather than unhealthy foods like french fries or soft drinks.
  • At least one frozen-vegetable company has launched a marketing campaign designed to get children to eat more vegetables. (See iCarly's iCook With Bird's Eye).


What You Can Do


As a parent or a caregiver, you can be proactive about curbing the influence of marketing and advertising that encourages children to make poor food choices. With younger children, limit their exposure to food marketing and advertising aimed at them. With older children, help them understand and control their reactions to food marketing and advertising techniques. Here are four tips for reducing the impact of food marketing and advertising on children:
  1. Limit children's "screen time" — time spent watching programs on TV or computers. Do not put a TV in a younger child's bedroom. As children get older, help them understand the important of giving priority to doing homework, exercising, and participating in after-school activities rather than watching TV programs.
  2. Limit time spent playing video games, especially "advergames." Help older children understand that these games are a form of advertising.
  3. You should always make a list before going to the grocery store and stick to it, but this is especially important when taking younger children to the store. This way, when children beg you to buy unhealthy food (like in the example above), you can say, "It's not on the list, so we can't buy it today." This is more effective than simply saying "No, we can't buy that" without an explanation.
  4. Children over 8 are beginning to understand the concept of advertising. This is when you can start to talk to them about why they want a food product. Is it because they saw it on television? Because it includes a toy? Because of the eye-catching packaging? Then talk about "better" reasons for buying food, such as "This food is delicious and food for me" or "I know this food is not good for me, but I eat healthy food most of the time, and I'd like to get this as a treat once in awhile."

Set a Goal for the Month


To get started helping your children avoid the lure of marketing and advertising that promotes the purchase of unhealthy foods, set one or more of the following goals this month:
  • The next time you are in the grocery store, look at signs and packaging to understand the techniques used to market unhealthy food to children.
  • Develop a plan to deal with children begging for highly marketed
    foods in the grocery store (see tip #3 above).
  • Talk to older children about the influence of food marketing and advertising on their eating and buying choices.

Please Share


Please share a story or observations about your experiences with marketing and advertising foods to children in the comment section below.


Written by Mary Schroeder, Extension Educator — Health and Nutrition Programs. Revised December 2014 by Hannah Jastram, Communications Associate and Mary Vitcenda, Senior Editor — Family Development.

1 comment:

Emily said...

It's crazy how much some of these companies target kids even without advertising. I would venture to guess there is a lot marketing that goes into the design of the packaging in order to appeal to children. Think about all the colors and cartoon cereal character on the typical cereal box.

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