Food Marketing to Children

by Alexina Cather, MPH

By Laura Lappan, MS

The prevalence of childhood obesity is on the rise and evidence implicates the abundance of persuasive food and beverage advertisements targeting children. Food and beverage companies utilize many techniques to establish brand loyalty at a young age. Television advertising is the most popular approach for promotion of energy-dense, nutrient-poor products to young children and numerous studies describe the harmful consequences. Such advertisements influence purchasing behaviors and increase preference for and consumption of unhealthy foods. Because these outcomes can lead to weight gain and poor health status, efforts to reduce promotion of unhealthy products to children are essential. The food industry attempted to self-regulate marketing practices by pledging to market only healthier products to children but few changes occurred. Policy efforts at the local, state, and federal levels may be more effective.

Keywords in order of importance

Marketing, Children, Food, Advertising, Obesity

Key learning points

  1. The promotion of energy-dense, micronutrient-poor foods and beverages to children is a significant contributor to obesity.
  2. Advertisements in childhood can lead to brand biases that carry on into adulthood.
  3. The food industry attempted to self-regulate marketing practices by pledging to market only healthier products to children but few changes occurred, suggesting that policy efforts at the local, state, and federal levels may be more effective.

Food Marketing to Children

The prevalence of obesity in the United States has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years (CDC, 2015a). According to the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, nearly 35% of youth 2-19 years old were overweight or obese in 2013-2014 (CDC, 2015b). Obese youth are at an elevated risk for obesity in adulthood and are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, social and psychological problems, and are at an increased risk for developing diabetes (CDC, 2015a; WHO, 2015). While intervening early on in life is imperative, the current food environment constantly exposes children to unhealthy practices that ultimately contribute to the rising rates of obesity. The World Health Organization implicates the promotion of energy-dense, micronutrient-poor foods and beverages to children as a significant contributor to obesity (WHO, 2006).

Food companies target young children to develop brand loyalty as early as possible. Research shows that exposure to advertisements in childhood can lead to brand biases that carry on into adulthood (Connell, Brucks, & Nielsen, 2014). McAlister and Cornwell (2010) investigated preschool children’s brand knowledge and found that children as young as 3 years old recognize brands, with McDonalds as the most recognizable individual brand. Similarly, Arredondo, Castaneda, Elder, Slymen, and Dozier (2009) found that overweight children 4-8 years old were significantly more likely to recognize fast food restaurant logos than other food logos. The fact that older adolescents’ purchasing decisions are often influenced by peer norms, while younger children are more influenced by the entertainment value of an advertisement and the novelty of a product, further reinforces food companies’ strategies to target young children (Battram, Piche, Beynon, Kurtz, & He, 2016).

The most popular forms of food and beverage advertising to youth include television (TV), digital food marketing (e.g., smartphone applications, banner advertisements on mobile websites, Facebook, games), product packaging (e.g., celebrity endorsements; licensed media characters; marketing messages about taste, convenience, or nutritional value), marketing in schools, and outdoor advertising in food outlets and communities (Cheyne, Mejia, Nixon, & Dorfman, 2014). Not surprisingly, TV advertising is the most prevalent promotional channel to children 2-15 years old (Cairns, Angus, Hastings, & Caraher, 2013). In addition to TV commercials, product placement is a significant marketing tool affecting young people as time-shifted viewing, mobile devices, and the Internet enable viewers to avoid traditional TV commercial advertisements (Elsey & Harris, 2015). Unfortunately, several studies show that the majority of advertisements targeting children promote energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods, with the most common categories being soft drinks, fast foods, and sugary breakfast cereals (Boyland & Whalen, 2015; Cairns et al., 2013; FTC, 2008). According to a 2012 analysis by the Federal Trade Commission, children and teens are exposed to 12-16 TV advertisements for unhealthy foods each day (Powell, Harris, & Fox, 2013). Elsey and Harris (2015) analyzed Nielsen data on child and adolescent exposure to food, beverage and restaurant brand appearances on US prime-time TV from 2009 to 2014 and found that children and adolescents were exposed to brand appearances from 954 different companies, but four were responsible for over half of all exposures: Coca-Cola Company, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, PepsiCo, and Starbucks.

While repeated brand exposures are one method companies use to increase brand awareness, strategies specifically designed to appeal to children are also employed. Catchy songs, slogans, bright colors, shapes, fantasy, animals, and familiar characters regularly appear in food advertisements directed at children. Battram et al. (2016) conducted focus groups with grade school children to gain an understanding of their perceptions of sugar-sweetened beverages and found that appealing and attractive advertisement campaigns were a dominant factor in influencing children’s beverage choices. More specifically, memorable slogans and music, use of celebrities and athletes, repeated exposures, and targeted messages encouraged children to try a new product (Battram et al., 2016). A study analyzing all food advertisements included in children’s programming on popular broadcast and cable channels during 2011 reported that nearly three quarters of advertisements used a familiar character, and of those, 72% promoted foods of low nutrition quality (Castonguay, Kunkel, Wright, & Duff, 2013).

By using such strategies, food companies successfully promote their products to children, resulting in unhealthy preferences, behaviors, and health outcomes. A comprehensive review of food and beverage marketing to children found evidence for preference changes toward foods high in fat, salt, or sugar in response to food advertising, suggesting that food promotion influences food preference (Cairns et al., 2013). The same review also confirmed that food promotion can directly influence purchasing choices and requests, as well as consumption behaviors such as increased snacking, high energy intake and less healthful food choices (Cairns et al., 2013). Buijzen, Schuurman, and Bomhof (2008) investigated children’s TV advertising exposure and food consumption patterns and found a relationship between the two: advertisements for energy-dense products influenced children’s consumption of the brands advertised as well as generic consumption of energy-dense foods. Furthermore, Scully et al. (2012) found that children who viewed commercial TV two or more hours per day reported greater consumption of fast food, sugary drinks, and sweet and salty snacks compared to children who watched no commercial TV. Increased consumption of unhealthy foods associated with food advertisement exposure often results in undesirable health outcomes. Two studies conducted in children 3-5 years old found that food brand knowledge was a significant predictor of body mass index (BMI) (Cornwell, McAlister, Polmear-Swendris, 2014). More specifically, children with a developed knowledge for fast food and packaged food had a greater BMI (Cornwell et al., 2014), suggesting that dangerous health outcomes begin very early in life.

Industry and government have a responsibility to respond to such findings by decreasing promotion of unhealthy foods and increasing promotion of healthy foods to children. The food industry attempted to do this by implementing the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) in 2006 (CBBB, n.d.). Sixteen popular food companies joined CFBAI and pledged to market only “better-for-you” foods in child-targeted media (Harris, LoDolce, Dembek, & Schwartz, 2015). However, numerous studies found that the initiative resulted in negligible changes to existing marketing practices (Harris & Graff, 2011; Harris et al., 2015; Kunkel, Castonguay, & Filer, 2015; Powell et al., 2013). A systematic review of food advertisements appearing in children’s TV programs found that no significant improvement in the overall nutritional quality of foods marketed to children had been achieved since industry self-regulation was adopted (Kunkel et al., 2015). In fact, in 2013, 80.5% of all foods advertised to children on TV were for products in the poorest nutritional category (Kunkel et al., 2015). Furthermore, reports show that children viewed 65% more candy advertisements on US TV in 2011 than before CFBAI implementation (Harris et al., 2015). Because studies consistently demonstrate the failure of industry self-regulation, policy efforts initiated at a governmental level are warranted. Experts suggest governmental intervention at the local, state, and federal levels (Harris et al., 2011; Harris et al., 2015; Kunkel et al., 2015; Powell et al., 2013; Vandevijvere & Swinburn, 2015). For example, in 1980, the government of Quebec enacted the Quebec Consumer Protection Act banning advertising targeting children under the age of 13 years. Analyses estimated that the ban reduced fast-food consumption by US$88 million per year (Dhar & Baylis, 2011). Quebec’s successful ban on fast-food advertising targeting children suggests that federal action is one possible solution to the many problems associated with unhealthy food promotion.

Although today’s food environment utilizes thoughtfully designed strategies to promote unhealthy foods to children at an early age, communities can collectively take action to limit such promotion and prevent undesirable consequences. Setting clear policy goals and comprehensive restrictions may help control the content of advertisements targeted at children. Additionally, parents and families must be educated about the effects of unhealthy foods on their children’s health, as adults are ultimately responsible for the foods and beverages young children consume. Shaping young children’s behaviors early on can help children make healthy, informed choices as they enter adolescence and adulthood.


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