I try very hard to make this blog a no-judgments zone. Except when it comes to food marketers. I have no patience for junk food marketing that tries to lure kids with cartoon characters, video games, and thinly veiled promises of being cool.
But a funny thing happens whenever I gripe about this: Some readers immediately jump to the company’s defense and suggest that parents simply need to do a better job of saying “no”.
This always strikes me as odd. As parents, we all know how hard this job can be. Most of us know what it’s like to be juggling a handbag, sippy cup, buzzing phone, and grocery cart while a toddler whines for the box of sugary cereal or Dora gummy fruits snacks that are (conveniently enough!) right at her eye level. When they’re older, they may start asking for Lunchables and sports they’ve seen on commercials or McDonald’s Happy Meals they got a coupon for at school.
Even if you’re a parent who routinely denies those requests, some kids will continue to make them. This makes life hard.
Marketers know that. And they know that some parents will give in to nagging and begging. Because nagging is aggravating–and sometimes effective. There’s actually a name for it: “Pester Power” is a term used to describe the power that children have to influence their parents’ buying behavior.
- Kids see more ads for fast food than any other food and beverage category, followed by cereal. ¹
- 70 percent of food ads on Nickolodeon are for unhealthy foods.²
- Half of the $700 million spent on fast food marketing is on toys.³
Even if your kids aren’t the pestering kind, junk food marketing can still affect them. Here’s how:
It changes how kids think about food.
“Food marketing not only affects what our kids want to eat, but it helps to define the social norm for eating for children, what kids think of as food. And unfortunately, it has helped to define kids’ food as junk — as gummy fruit-flavored snacks shaped like their favorite characters, brightly dyed white-flour goldfish crackers, overly sweetened cereals, and various concoctions of sugary drinks.”–Margo Wootan, D.Sc., director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
It creates brand loyalty, sometimes among kids too young to understand.
For decades, McDonald’s, Coca Cola and the junk food industry have targeted children from a young age – attempting to create lifelong brand loyalty with no regard for the health consequences. The science is clear. Marketing to children is deceptive and manipulative because young children still developmentally do not understand persuasive intent. This is why major health agencies from the American Academy of Pediatrics on up to World Health Organization have recommended restrictions on marketing to children. –Sriram Madhusoodanan, a campaign director for Corporate Accountability International (CAI)
It purposely undermines parents’ messages in sneaky ways.
Marketers go too far when they use the “parental responsibility” argument to imply that they themselves should not be held accountable for egregious intrusions into children’s lives—especially since marketers are increasingly going out of their way to circumvent parents, seeking out children in venues where parents aren’t present. Overextended parents should not be forced to raise children in plastic bubbles while marketers enjoy free reign to accost kids who unwittingly venture into a commercial world by simply attending school or a public library. The fact that parents hold primary responsibility for teaching children positive values does not imply that corporations should be allowed to undermine parents and saturate kids with harmful messages. –“Kids Unbranded” a guide from Center for a New American Dream, an organization that helps raise awareness of the negative impact of a hyper-consumer culture
Here are ways you can fight back, courtesy of food activist Casey Hinds of the blog US Healthy Kids:
- Limit your child’s access to commercials and online games that promote junk food and sugary drinks.
- Tell McDonalds you don’t think Ronald McDonald belongs in schools.
- Urge Nickelodeon to follow Disney’s lead and stop advertising junk food to children.
- Ask Congress to end taxpayer subsidies for junk food marketing to children.
Read about my trip with CAI to McDonald’s Headquarters, where we asked them to stop marketing to children: What Happened When I Went to McDonalds HQ
¹ Trends in Television Food Advertising to Young People: 2013 Update from Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.
² Nickelodeon: Marketing Obesity to Kids from Center for Science in the Public Interest
³ “Child-Directed Marketing Inside and on the Exterior of Fast Food Restaurants“, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, October 2014.