Food marketing 101

What kind of food is being marketed to children?

The overwhelming majority of the foods marketed to children are of poor nutritional quality.

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Does food marketing affect children’s health?

The goal of food marketing is to influence children’s food choices. Companies wouldn’t spend billions of dollars a year on food marketing to children if they didn’t believe it had an impact. Unhealthy food and beverage marketing increases children’s preference and intake of energy-dense foods with little nutritional value.2,3 Media advertising and on-package advertising affect not only the foods children ask for, but also which foods kids are willing to eat.

Some key finding son how marketing affects children’s nutrition and health:

  • TV advertising influences children’s diets.3
  • Aggressive food and beverage marketing targeted at kids and youth contributes to an environment that threatens their health.3
  • Children are susceptible to marketing influences, especially marketing for tempting products that require developed self-regulatory abilities.4
  • A review of the major research from 2009 to 2013 found that food promotions can be linked to individual weight outcomes.5

How do marketers reach children?

Food companies spend $1.79 billion a year marketing to children.6

bar chart illustrating the total amount spent on food marketing to children ($1.79 billion a year), versus that spent on marketing healthy food marketing ($280 million)

  • Companies market food to children through television, radio, Internet, magazines, product placement in movies and video games, schools, product packages, toys, clothing and other merchandise, and almost anywhere a logo or product image can be shown.
  • Food marketing techniques include the use of characters, celebrities, cartoons, toy giveaways and other premiums, collectibles, games, contests and kids’ clubs.
  • With a rise in digital media including advergames and mobile phones, marketers are increasingly able to reach children directly, often without parents’ awareness, with more finely targeted messaging.
  • Newer forms of marketing are often disguised as entertainment, which makes them difficult for children to identify that it is marketing.4
  • Youth (12-14) are vulnerable to the influence of unhealthy food marketing due to greater independence and increased levels of media consumption.4
  • In 2011 and 2012, 34% of U.S. children and adolescents consumed fast food on a given day.1-7 Yet 97% of kids’ meals at the top chain restaurants do not meet basic nutrition standards.8

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1. Powell LM, Schermbeck RM, Chaloupka FJ. “Nutritional Content of Food and Beverage Products in Television Advertisements Seen on Children’s Programming.” Childhood Obesity, December 2013, vol. 9(6), pp. 524-531.

2. Sadeghirad B, Duhaney T, Motaghipisheh S, Campbell NR, Johnston BC. “Influence of Unhealthy Food and Beverage Marketing on Children’s Dietary Intake and Preference: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Trials.” Obesity Reviews, October 2016, vol. 17(10), pp. 945-959.

3. Institute of Medicine (IOM). Food Marketing to Children: Threat or Opportunity? Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2006.

4. Harris JL, Heard A, Schwartz MB. Older but Still Vulnerable: All Children Need Protection from Unhealthy Food Marketing. Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, January 2014. Accessed at

5. Kelly B, King L, Chapman K, Boyland E, Bauman AE, Baur LA. “A Hierarchy of Unhealthy Food Promotion Effects: Identifying Methodological Approaches and Knowledge Gaps.” American Journal of Public Health, April 2015, vol. 105(4), pp. 86-95.

6. A Review of Marketing Food to Children and Adolescents: Follow-Up Report. Washington, D.C.: Federal Trade Commission, 2012. Available from

7. Vikraman S, Fryar CD, Ogden CL. “Caloric Intake from Fast Food among Children and Adolescents in the United States, 2011–2012.” NCHS Data Brief. September 2015, no. 213. Accessed at

8. Batada A, Flewelling L, Goode A, Wootan, MG. Kids’ Meals II: Obesity and Poor Nutrition on the Menu. Washington, D.C.: Center for Science in the Public Interest, March 2013. Accessed at