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Food marketing 101

What kind of food is being marketed to children?

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

  • Three-quarters (73%) of the foods advertised on television shows intended for children are for convenience/fast foods and sweets.1
  • On Nickelodeon, the most popular children’s television station, ads for foods of poor nutritional quality decreased only modestly in recent years from about 80% of food ads in 2008 to 70% in 2012.
  • Only one-quarter of chain restaurants that market to children have food marketing policies and none of those address toys. Yet 99% of kids’ meals at the top chain restaurants are too high in calories.

How does food marketing affect children’s health?

The rise in obesity among children and teens coincides with major changes in the way food and beverage industries market their products to youth.2

  • According to the Institute of Medicine, TV advertising influences the diets of children ages 2-11.3
  • There is strong evidence that exposure to television is linked to the body fat of kids and youth ages 2-18.4
  • Aggressive food and beverage marketing targeted at kids and youth contributes to an environment that threatens their health.5

How do marketers reach children?

The total amount spent on food marketing to children is $1.79 billion a year.6

  • 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 spokes-characters, celebrities, cartoons, toy giveaways and other premiums, collectibles, games, contests, kids’ clubs, and more.
  • With a rise in digital media including online gaming and mobile phones, marketers are increasingly able to reach children directly, often without parents’ awareness.

How effective is food marketing?

There is no disputing that the goal of food marketing is to influence children’s food choices. Companies clearly believe that marketing works or they wouldn’t spend billions of dollars a year on it.

  • According to a comprehensive review by the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine, studies  demonstrate that television food advertising affects children’s food choices, food purchase requests, diets,  and health.7
  • Parents know from experience that ads and cartoon characters on food packages affect not only which  foods their children ask them to purchase, but which foods their kids are willing to eat.
  • Based on an extensive review of the research, the American Psychological Association concluded that until  the age of about 8 years old children are unable to understand the persuasive intent of advertisements.8

What is target marketing?

One of the strategies that food and beverage companies use to make people feel like a product is special or just for them is target marketing. This tactic involves directing marketing to specific demographics based on race, ethnicity, gender, age and other characteristics.9

  • Target marketing of African American and Latino youth is especially prevalent, leading children of color to get what marketing professor Sonya Grier has described as a “double dose of marketing.”10 In other words, they are exposed to both mainstream campaigns and general marketing messages.
  • Companies market unhealthy foods and drinks to children of color in all of the places where kids live, learn and play. Going beyond television, marketers use online and mobile media, outdoor ads in schools, child care centers and supermarkets, as well as scholarships and charitable donations — the latter of which help foster good will and insulate companies from criticism — to target young people of color.
  • While a standard business practice, target marketing is particularly problematic because the groups being targeted with junk food, soda, and other unhealthy products are disproportionately affected by nutrition-related diseases, such obesity and diabetes.

Learn more

Check out the following resources on food marketing to children, its connection to health, and what changes need to be made to our food environment to promote healthy eating.

Annotated bibliography on target marketing
Prepared by Berkeley Media Studies Group for the Food Marketing Workgroup

Big Food: Sounds a lot like Big Tobacco
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Sugary Drink FACTS 2014
UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Actions to reduce unhealthy food marketing to kids: Understanding the past to foster success in the present [webinar]
Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, Food Marketing Workgroup, National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity

Fast Food FACTS 2013: Measuring progress in nutrition and marketing to children and teens
UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Stacked odds: Finding a healthy kids’ meal
UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Big Burger is watching: Fast food marketing undermines parents
UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Fast food ad spending [infographic]
UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

How television fast food marketing aimed at children compares with adult advertisements
Amy M. Bernhardt, Cara Wilking, Anna M. Adachi-Mejia, Elaina Bergamini, Jill Marijnissen, James D. Sargen

Sugar as part of a balanced breakfast? What cereal advertisements teach children about healthy eating
Megan E. LoDolce,  Jennifer L. Harris & Marlene B. Schwartz (UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity)

Food marketing expenditures aimed at youth: Putting the numbers in context [pdf]
Lisa M. Powell (Institute for Health Research and Policy), Jennifer L. Harris (UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity) and Tracy Fox (Healthy Eating Research)

Marketing sugary cereals to children in the digital age: A content analysis of 17 child-targeted websites
Berkeley Media Studies Group, UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Food and beverage marketing to children and adolescents: Limited progress by 2012, recommendations for the future — brief report
Healthy Eating Research, Berkeley Media Studies Group

Food and beverage marketing to children and adolescents: Limited progress by 2012, recommendations for the future — full report
Berkeley Media Studies Group, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Fact sheet: Food marketing to children
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Why marketing unhealthy food to children must stop
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Food marketing to children and youth: Threat or opportunity? [pdf]
Review of the effects of food marketing on children’s diets and health. Report by the Institute of Medicine Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth, Food and Nutrition Board, and Board on Children, Youth, and Families.  Editors J. Michael McGinnis, Jennifer Appleton Gootman, and Vivica I. Kraak.

Tough enough: Being a parent is hard enough; food marketing makes feeding children healthfully even harder [pdf]
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Focus groups with parents: What do they think about food marketing to their kids? [pdf]
UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. Authors Amy E. Ustjanauskas, Bruce Eckman, Jennifer L. Harris, Amir Goren, Marlene B. Schwartz, and Kelly D. Brownell.

Pestering parents: How food companies market obesity to children
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Public perceptions of food marketing to youth [pdf]
 UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. Authors Sarah Speers, Jennifer Harris, Amir Goren, Marlene B. Schwartz, and Kelly D. Brownell.

Marketing food to children and adolescents: A review of industry expenditures, activities and self-regulation
Federal Trade Commission. Authors William E. Kovacic, Pamela Jones Harbour, Jon Leibowitz and J. Thomas Rosch.

Fact sheet: Unhealthy and unregulated: Food advertising and marketing to children [pdf]
American Heart Association

Food and beverage marketing to children and adolescents: What changes are needed to promote healthy eating habits? [pdf]
Healthy Eating Research, a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Authors Nicole Larson and Mary Story.

Recommendations for an international code of marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children [pdf]
Iaso, Consumers International, International Obesity TaskForce

Food marketing in other countries
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Marketing food to children: The global regulatory environment [pdf]
World Health Organization. Author Corinna Hawkes.

 

Get involved

To learn what you can do to make our food environment more supportive of healthy eating, visit our policy pages and take action section.

 


References

1. Kunkel D. et al. The Impact of Industry Self-Regulation on the Nutritional Quality of Foods Advertised to Children on Television. Oakland, CA: Children Now, 2009.

2. Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity? Institute of Medicine Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth. J. Michael McGinnis, Jennifer Appleton Gootman, Vivica I. Kraak, Eds.

3. Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?

4. Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?

5. Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?

6. A Review of Marketing Food to Children and Adolescents: Follow-Up Report. Washington, DC: Federal Trade Commission, 2012. Available from http://www.ftc.gov/os/2012/12/121221foodmarketingreport.pdf

7. Institute of Medicine. Food Marketing to Children: Threat or Opportunity? Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2006.

8. Kunkel D. et al. Psychological Issues in the Increasing Commercialization of Childhood: Report of the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2004.

9. Grier SA, Kumanyika S. (2010). Targeted marketing and public health. Annu Rev Public Health; 31: 349-69.

10. Lappe A. (2014, May 27). Junk food industry’s shameful targeting of black and Latino youth. Aljazeera America. Available at: http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/5/junk-food-targetmarketingblacklatinoyouth.html. Accessed July 8, 2015.