“Mom, I want THAT!” – Marketing Unhealthy Foods to Kids


November 12, 2012 by amberpulaski

American children watch around 3.5 hours of television per day. Of course, with that come a lot of advertisements. In 2009, children saw approximately 11 food-related advertisements per day, and 86% of the products seen in these ads were high in saturated or trans fats, sugar, or sodium. This is a problem, because high intake of these foods is linked to obesity. (3)

In 2006, the Better Business Bureau started the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI). The purpose of this initiative was to encourage companies to voluntarily enroll in the program, submit pledges to market healthy foods, and agree to be monitored by the bureau. There are now 16 companies participating, including Burger King, Campbell Soup Company, Coca-Cola Company, McDonalds, and many other prominent names (2). It may seem like 16 companies is not enough to make a difference, but together these 16 companies accounted for 80% of advertisements for food and beverages (3). If these companies all complied with CFBAI guidelines, it would have significant impact on marketing exposure to unhealthy foods. Campbell et al. conducted a study to compare the content of ads before and after CFBAI implementation. The study found that there was an improvement in the types of foods being advertised, but 86% (compared to 94% prior to CFBAI) of the ads still contained foods high in fat, sodium and sugar (3). CFBAI’s initiative that is based on voluntary involvement does not have sufficient compliance by member companies to make a real difference.

Obama administration has been trying for the past few years to pass legislation that would outline guidelines for the types of food and beverage that should be marketed to children. A working group has already convened with representatives from most of the prominent health institutions in the US to establish guidelines for what qualifies a food or beverage as being “healthy” and suitable for marketing to children. The guidelines will provide recommendations related to calorie content, food group representation, and nutrient content of foods marketed to children (1). The goal of this legislation would be to improve the diets of American children and reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity.

Food and beverage companies do not support the proposal. Although following the guidelines will be voluntary, many companies feel that organizational pressures from various groups will force them into cooperating and pretty much eliminate advertising to children. Industry argues that not being able to advertise to children will lead to job loss. Is industry referencing job loss in their marketing department or due to decreased sales? Either way, companies could opt instead to switch strategies and market healthier products. Many companies argue they don’t have products that meet the guidelines and that it is too expensive to reformulate products to make them healthier. Companies also claim the plan is an infringement on commercial free speech. Obama administration addressed this concern by pointing out the plan would not be mandatory. Industry also claimed there is not a well-established link between marketing unhealthy foods to kids and childhood obesity (4). It is difficult to link obesity to advertising; it is most likely a result of a combination of variables. However, obesity has been linked to consumption of the types of foods and beverages being marketed to kids (3).

Passing legislation that regulates marketing toward children is not an easy task. The Obama administration is experiencing difficulty simply passing food-marketing guidelines that are not mandatory. In order for restrictions on food marketing to occur, a few things will need to happen. Guidelines for food considered healthy and therefore “marketable” will have to be carefully decided upon. Compromises may have to be made in order to ensure industry is not affected financially by the restrictions. Research will have to be provided to companies and public that shows positive relationship between advertising of unhealthy foods and weight gain in children. Parents will have to become more involved in demanding better food products and advertisements for their children. Consumer involvement will put pressure on food and beverage companies to change their business practices, and industry will be more likely to concede to regulations.


1) Interagency Working Group Proposal on Food Marketing to Children

2) (2012). Children’s food and beverage advertising initiative. website: http://www.bbb.org/us/childrens-food-and-beverage-advertising-initiative/

3) Powell, L. M., Schermbeck, R. M., Szczypka, G., Chaloupka, F. J., & Braunschweig, C. L. (2011, December). Trends in the nutritional content of television food advertisements seen by children in the United States: Analyses by age, food categories, and companies.

4) ElBoghdady, D. (2011, December 15). Lawmakers want cost-benefit analysis on child food marketing restrictions. Retrieved from The Washington Post website: http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/lawmakers-want-cost-benefit-analysis-on-child-food-marketing-restrictions/2011/12/15/gIQAdqxywO_story.html


3 thoughts on ““Mom, I want THAT!” – Marketing Unhealthy Foods to Kids

  1. catherinecoughlin says:

    I agree with the bottom line here: we need to put pressure where the dollars are. Money talks. Industry won’t continue advertising unhealthy foods to children if the demand isn’t there. Consumer involvement is a great target for lowering the demand of unhealthy products. I feel like marketing and advertisement has not been given sufficient attention as a contributory factor to childhood obesity, but just look at the numbers! 86% of the average child’s 4.5 hours of daily screen time is filled with unhealthy products (1). And we don’t think this influences snack time?? I’m sure we can all provide ample anecdotal evidence from our own lives to suggest otherwise. But at least we know the consequences of our dietary choices. Children do not have the knowledge base to know that the unhealthy foods they see on TV now may lead to chronic disease and illness down the road.
    We already know that we are genetically predisposed to crave unhealthy foods. I don’t think industry needs to advertise it. It contributes to the obesogenic environment that is currently costing our healthcare system billions (2). It costs groups about $350,000 per commercial (obviously not factoring in the hefty $2.4 million price tag for a Super Bowl commercial), so industry groups can save the money they no longer spend advertising unhealthy products and use it to supplement all that lost revenue they fear due to the decreased advertisements (3).

    1. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0031395505703540
    2. http://www.forbes.com/sites/bethhoffman/2012/08/16/what-the-obesity-epidemic-costs-us-infographic/
    3. http://www.gaebler.com/Television-Advertising-Costs.htm

    • locklearcr says:

      I agree that it the issue of food market to children could be dealt with more effectively from the consumer’s end. If there is a shift in demand, production of these products will shift as well. Maybe consumer don’t feel that it is that important or that they don’t have the power to do something about it. It’s amazing that they target children as much as they do; it’s unfortunately very effective and shapes the child’s perceptions of desirable food at an early age. In one particular study, it was found that children’s desires for advertised foods rose along with the request to their parents to purchase those foods. The age of the children in the study did not make a difference – they all showed similar responses(1). The sad part is, as Catherine said, children aren’t capable of understanding what they’re are being subjected to which makes the whole idea of food marketing quite dangerous (2).

      But what can we do? What has to change first? Maybe if we go from the ground up, things would improve more rapidly. From a business perspective, there are several ways to “change the demand curve”. Changing consumer preference is the simple (and probably the most effective) way to do this (3).

      Also, from personal experience in completion of a project on food marketing to children, the media landscape over the years has significantly changed. I was in shock when I watched several popular kid’s television networks (Nickelodeon/Disney/Cartoon Network/Boomerang) and their shows, and found that the number of advertisements were few and far between. Beyond that, the ones that were actually marketing products that were food related were even less. I recall a time when Gushers, Pop-tarts, and fruit roll-ups commercials hypnotized me during a Scooby-doo episode. Now, it seems that the ads during commercials breaks are geared more towards the networks’ other shows/programs, as well as popular children’s toys.

      1. http://jhppl.dukejournals.org/content/35/2/227.full.pdf+html
      2. http://www.cspinet.org/new/pdf/food_marketing_to_children.pdf
      3. http://smallbusiness.chron.com/changes-demand-curve-product-11263.html

  2. eldavies3 says:

    Thanks for your post, Amber! Reading this, it occurred to me that a decade or two from now our country will probably look back on food advertising marketed to children with the same horror that we now feel when thinking of cigarette companies advertising tobacco to children. The parallel between the tobacco industry and the food industry is often cited when discussing public health pushes to make healthy food choices more widespread and diminish the availability (or at least improve the public’s knowledge of) unhealthy foods. An article by Kelly Brownell of the Yale University Rudd Center for Obesity & Policy and Kenneth Warner from University of Michigan entitled The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar is Big Food explores this topic in depth and concludes, “Food is obviously different from tobacco, and the food industry differs from tobacco companies in important ways, but there also are significant similarities in the actions that these industries have taken in response to concern that their products cause harm” (1). In particular, both industries pushed the idea of personal responsibility; in the case of the food industry, it blames the obesity epidemic on personal choices rather than an obesigenic environment. Brownell and Warner then go on to suggest that unless the food industry makes major changes such as decreasing advertising to children, creating healthier products to advertise, and being clearer about when advertising/product placement is actually taking place, the food industry may suffer the same fate as the tobacco industry. They state, “If the industry does not make change preemptively, public opinion may turn against it, as it did against Big Tobacco. The turn may occur more rapidly with food because of the cynicism bred by tobacco and a general anti-industry outlook…” (1). I think public health as a field would prefer if the food industry made changes voluntarily, but I also think we’d support a massive shift in public opinion that forced the food industry to change its ways.

    1. Brownell, Kelly D., and Kenneth E. Warner. “The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food?” Milbank Quarterly 87.1 (2009): 259-94. Print.

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