Parents who take their kids to the grocery store are probably used to fending off incessant requests for chips, fruit snacks, sugary cereals, soda, and other unhealthy, nutrient-poor food. This perennial battle is taken for granted today—it’s as much a part of raising children as is changing diapers or reading bedtime stories. But there’s reason to think kids wouldn’t want junk food so much if marketers didn’t target them so heavily.
Take the grocery store. A study by Dr. Brian Wansink and colleagues at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab looked at 65 cereals, finding those marketed at kids are placed half as high on grocery store shelves as cereals marketed to adults. They even found that the eyes of characters on cereal boxes, like Cap’n’Crunch and Scooby Doo, are pointed downward to make eye contact with kids, as Dr. Wansink shows in a video. “It looks more trustworthy and increases your likelihood of purchasing things,” he says.
Marketing food to kids is a $2.1 billion industry, the vast majority of it for fast food products, carbonated beverages, cereal, and candy, according to a 2012 Federal Trade Commission report. (Interestingly the foods marketed to kids are a lot less healthy on the whole than those marketed at adults).
Substantial research has found that marketing heavily influences what people choose to purchase and eat. One study found children consumed 45 percent more snack food after watching food advertising compared to those who didn’t view these kinds of ads. This is highly concerning given that one-third of children in America are overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, putting them at risk for chronic illnesses later in life, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and sleep apnea.
Children are bombarded with all kinds of advertising—TV commercials, giveaways, digital media communication through cell phone, emails, and websites. As the Public Health Law Center puts it, “The means by which these products are marketed are limited only by the creativity of food marketers.”
Marketing junk food with popular children’s characters and celebrities are common tactics by purveyors. Ironically, the celebrities we think of as at the pinnacle of health are some of the worst offenders. Of the ads they have made for food, professional athletes like Peyton Manning, LeBron James, and Serena Williams primarily endorse foods that are energy-dense and nutrient-poor, and the only other products they market more than food are sporting goods, according to a 2013 study by Dr. Bragg and colleagues.
In a future blog entry, we’ll tell you what you can do about all of the ads targeted at your kids.