Junk food marketing to children: How it works and the price we pay

I have written about the behavior shaping role of the entertainment and news media before, but of course, marketing plays a huge role too. And the behavior shaping role of marketing has been in the spotlight this past month, specifically in the context of marketing of junk food to children. Between the continual delays and watering down of what are already completely voluntary recommended nutrition standards for marketing foods to kids (composed by the Federal Trade Commission’s Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children) and the release of a study revealing that popular cereal brands “pack more sugar than snack cakes and cookies”, it seems like a good time to take a closer look at the world of fast food and junk food marketing to kids.

As the Prevention Institute points out:

*The food and beverage industry spends approximately $2 billion per year marketing to children.

*The fast food industry spends more than $5 million every day marketing unhealthy foods to children. 

*Kids watch an average of over ten food-related ads every day (nearly 4,000/year).

*Nearly all (98 percent) of food advertisements viewed by children are for products that are high in fat, sugar or sodiumMost (79 percent) are low in fiber.

In a study comparing the nutritional content of food items observed during advertisements (during 84 hours of primetime and 12 hours of Saturday-morning TV broadcast during the fall of 2004) to the recommended daily values, researchers found that a diet consisting of observed food items would provide 2,560% of the recommended daily servings for sugars, 2,080% of the recommended daily servings for fat, 40% of the recommended daily servings for vegetables, 32% of the recommended daily servings for dairy, and 27% of the recommended daily servings for fruits.

This disproportional marketing of foods high in fat and sugar might be concerning in and of itself – but the real problem is that it’s working. Beyond the evident fact that childhood obesity is an enormous problem in the United States, numerous researchers and government agencies have found specifically that marketing and advertising of foods does in fact impact children’s food preferences, as well as purchase requests directed to parents and short- and long-term dietary consumption.

Moreover, in recent years, researchers at the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity have concluded that “the traditional models used to explain advertising effects have overemphasized the importance of children’s understanding of persuasive intent”, echoing an Institute of Medicine Report which points out that although the most common models used to explain the effects of food marketing assume a conscious and rational path from exposure to behavior via persuasion, more recent psychological models suggest repeated exposure to food advertising can lead directly to beliefs and behaviors without active, deliberate processing of the information presented.

In this context, branding and cues such as cartoon “spokes characters,” colorful packaging, and pictures have been identified as important in this link between food advertising and beliefs and behaviors. Studies have shown that children 3-5 years prefer the taste of baby carrots, milk, and other products out of a McDonald’s bag and that kids 4-6 years prefer the taste of graham crackers and gummy fruit snacks with Dora, Shrek or Scooby Doo on packaging.

If that’s not worrisome enough, the Prevention Institute has more statistics for us:

*Nearly 40% of children’s diets come from added sugars and unhealthy fats.

*Each day, African-American children see twice as many calories advertised in fast-food commercials as White children.

*Even five years after children have been exposed to promotions of unhealthy foods, researchers found that they purchased fewer fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but increased their consumption of fast foods, fried foods and sugar-sweetened beverages.

*By 2030, healthcare costs attributable to poor diet and inactivity could range from $860 billion to $956 billion, which would account for 15.8 to 17.6 percent of total healthcare costs, or one in every six dollars spent on healthcare.

So what can we do? I think the solution lies in not only in trying to limit the marketing of unhealthy foods to children but also in tapping into their strategies (which clearly work) to promote healthy options to kids. As the Institute of Medicine points out, the field has “underutilized the potential to devote creativity and resources in promoting food, beverages, and meals that support healthful diets for children”. One of the few examples I’ve come across: the recent baby carrots campaign, which “takes a page out of junk foods’ playbook and applies it to baby carrots” with Doritos-like packaging, seasonal tie-ins like “scarrots” during Halloween, and TV spots that portray baby carrots as extreme and futuristic.

We have a responsibility to be creative and tap into strategies that work when it comes to marketing healthy foods – not just preach and list facts (since we all know how appealing kids find that technique).

We also have a responsibility to step up and speak up against the massive junk food and fast food industries in their aggressive marketing to children – the Prevention Institute has a great video and easy action items on this front.

Check it out and add your voice to the discussion!

(This post is cross-posted at www.pursuitofpublichealth.com)

Vinu Ilakkuvan received her Masters of Science degree in Society, Human Development, and Health from the Harvard School of Public Health in May 2011. She currently works in youth violence prevention in Richmond, Virginia, and blogs about public health at www.pursuitofpublichealth.com

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Posted in Community, Health behavior, healthcare, public health, Social Determinents of Health
  • Carmen

    Vinu:

    As usual, you hit it out of the park. Training children to prefer high-fat, high-sugar content foods by associating it with “cool” marketing makes the psychological battle harder to contend with when they are adults. Their tastes are ingrained by the time they are seven years of age. This is where preventive medicine begins.

  • http://www.pursuitofpublichealth.com/ pursuitofPH

    Thanks for the comment, Carmen! Ingrained tastes are a huge problem to overcome – we are all so used to highly processed, high sugar, high fat, high salt foods, that natural foods end up tasting bland…But as you said, all the more reason to work on prevention, including at very early ages.

  • miller7

    And lest we forget the impact of culture on what we eat and how we use food in general. Not only do our public health interventions need to consider cultural elements, but so do our educational campaigns to combat some of the food marketing aimed at certain ethnic groups.

    This is not a bad video on the topic (does not address the cultural piece): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ab9zbqHJ_p4

    Thanks, Vinu for the great piece.

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