Food Marketing to Kids

Obesity is one of the most critical public health problems facing American children today.  Public health professionals concerned about the unhealthy diets and lifestyles that lead to childhood obesity have identified several causes including a reduction in physical education classes and after-school athletic programs, the proliferation of sugary drinks and snack foods in schools, the easy availability of fast food across the U.S., the trend toward super-sizing food portions in restaurants, and the growth in high-calorie , high-fat, and high sodium packaged food products. 

Food marketing to children has also been identified as playing a key role in this national crisis. The Institute of Medicine, for example, has compiled studies that show the importance of television advertisements in influencing unhealthy food and beverage preferences, requests and diets of children. 

In addition to commercials on TV, food and beverages are target-marketed to young children and teens through a wide range of marketing channels, in nearly every environment where a kid might study, play, hang out, or eat.  Marketers target children and youth through packaging; giveaways and contests; product placement in movies, TV shows, and video games; through digital media such as text messaging, cell phones, email, and websites; viral marketing;  and cross-promotions involving movies, popular licensed characters, and even books.  The means by which these products are marketed are limited only by the creativity of food marketers. 

Public health professionals are not only concerned about the quantity and types of advertising targeted at children and youth, they are also alarmed about the nutritional quality of products most heavily marketed to children. Despite some improvements in recent years, the overwhelming majority of food and beverage advertising targeted to the young still tends to be for products of poor nutritional quality. For example, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported that in 2006 (the most recent year for which data is available), food and beverage companies spent $1.6 billion to market their products to kids.  Sixty-three percent of this total was spent to market just three types of products—breakfast cereals, fast foods, and carbonated drinks.  Combine this with the findings of researchers at the Yale Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity from their series of studies documenting what types of breakfast cereals, fast food, and sugary drinks are marketed to children and youth, and to what extent, and it’s easy to understand why food marketing practices have raised so much concern among public health advocates.

Public health experts and consumer advocates are exploring ways to address troubling food and beverage marketing trends, using both legal and policy alternatives.  Industry self-regulatory programs play a key role here, due to the legal and political challenges that governmental efforts have faced.  

Other policy options that advocates and policy makers are exploring include:  limiting the tying of toy giveaways with unhealthy kids’ meals in restaurants; using licensing laws or other mechanisms to motivate retailers to create healthy checkout lanes and similar point-of-sale product placement strategies; pricing strategies, such as raising taxes on sugary drinks to make them more costly for youth to buy; and creating media messages to promote consumer awareness about fitness and sound nutrition. 

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