The Dark Side of Marketing Healthy Food to Children

By Susan Linn and Michele Simon

In response to the public outcry over the negative impacts of junk food marketing to children, food companies have started using popular media characters to market “healthy” foods to children. These products include fruits and vegetables, as well as processed food. So we now have Campbell’s Disney Princess “Healthy Kids” soup, Kellogg’s Scooby-Doo! cereal (with less sugar), and others.

But is this really progress?

The developmental vulnerabilities of children, along with the legal, ethical, and political pitfalls of encouraging the food industry to target kids, make marketing food to children harmful regardless of nutritional content.

Children are Especially Vulnerable to Advertising

Researchers and advocates for children’s health agree that advertising junk food to children is effective. One 30-second commercial can influence the food preferences of children as young as age two. For young children, branding even trumps taste. Preschool children report that junk food in McDonald’s packaging taste better than food in plain wrapping—even if it’s the same food. Similar studies show the same results for food packaging featuring media characters.

Research demonstrates that marketing any product to children under age 12 is inherently deceptive. Unlike adults, young children do not have the cognitive capacity to fully understand the purpose of advertising. Very young children cannot even distinguish between a TV program and a commercial. Until the age of about eight, they don’t really understand the concept of selling and they tend to believe what they see.

Moreover, only 40 percent of 11 and 12 year olds have a full understanding of persuasive intent—that every aspect of advertising is designed to convince them to do things they might not do otherwise. This makes children especially vulnerable to deception by hyperbole, puffery, and other common advertising techniques.

Marketing Healthy Food Undermines Healthy Child Development

Some advocates argue that deceiving children to eat healthy food is good strategy. But such tactics are actually harmful. A primary goal for advocates should be for children to develop a healthy relationship to food. Foisting character-branded products on children undermines that effort. Marketing to children does more than sell products—it inculcates habits and behaviors. Marketing branded produce such as Kung-Fu Panda Edamame to children instills the unhealthy habit of choosing food based on marketing cues such as celebrity, rather than on a child’s own innate hunger, taste, or good nutrition.

Children’s health depends on more than diet; their social, emotional and cognitive nourishment are also important. Popular media icons used to sell kids veggies also market myriad other products, including junk food, junk toys and screen media. Research shows that, among other harms, such commercialism inhibits children’s creative play—the foundation of learning, creativity, constructive problem solving, and the capacity to initiate and complete tasks and projects—which is essential to a truly healthy childhood. And excessive screen time is linked to problems ranging from unhealthy eating, sleep disturbance, and poor school performance.

All Marketing to Children is Inherently Misleading

While the food industry claims it has a First Amendment right to advertise to children, the law says otherwise. Free speech is not a blank check; it has limits. Current federal law actually prohibits unfair or deceptive advertising. Similarly, false or misleading advertising is not allowed under most state consumer protection statutes.

Marketing to children does not get First Amendment protection because it is inherently misleading. If a young child cannot even understand the purpose of an ad, then marketing anything to that child is both unfair and deceptive. The nutritional content of the product being marketed is irrelevant.

With enough political will, lawmakers could pass new laws banning marketing to children without running afoul of the First Amendment. Such policies are in effect in several other countries, and have not caused the economic sky to fall.

Calling for governmental endorsement of marketing “healthy” food to children potentially undermines these legal theories, which we need to preserve as we build a larger movement of advocates to protect children in a more effective and meaningful way.

We Can’t Beat the Food Industry at its Own Game

Finally, the food industry is happy to play along when advocates call for the marketing of “healthier” food to children. Corporate lobbyists have invented a voluntary self-regulation scheme to convince politicians and the public they’ve got it covered with nutrition standards that allegedly protect children.

But as many of these same advocates have rightly pointed out again and again, this non-system is a dismal failure. Even the federal government couldn’t persuade the food industry to improve its voluntary guidelines.

By begging and pleading with the food industry to improve how it markets to children, instead of working to end food marketing to children entirely, we are continuing to endorse a failed system in which industry gets to set the rules, break them whenever it pleases, and then take credit for doing the right thing. The CEO of McDonald’s recently claimed with a straight face that his company does not market to children. To bolster his case, he pointed to milk and apple slices in Happy Meals. This is just the sort of twisted logic that results from advocates asking industry to set nutrition standards for food marketing to children.

Less sugar in Scooby-Doo cereal and more apple slices in Happy Meals will not make children healthier. Instead of settling for such crumbs, advocates should take a stronger stand to protect children and demand that corporations stop engaging altogether in the unethical practice of marketing to children. Yes, this is a Herculean task and yes, it will take a massive movement to accomplish. Let’s get to work. The cost to children is too high if we don’t.

Susan Linn is Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and Instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

24 Responses to “The Dark Side of Marketing Healthy Food to Children”

  1. Andrea says:

    I agree with you regarding advertising to children and the “low” levels that food companies stoop to in order to make a dollar. However, I just wanted to add that parents need to start taking a more proactive role in their children’s health. Learning to eat healthy and living healthy lives starts at home. If parents would lead by example and cook healthy, homemade meals more often then the issue of how McDonald’s advertises really wouldn’t be that much of an issue.

  2. The whole concept of “kids’ food” really bothers me. My children eat what we eat. They more or less always have–if perhaps they started with pureed versions.

    It drives me nuts when restaurants hand my kids a “kids’ menu” with breaded chicken strips and ketchup, macaroni and cheese or a grilled (american) cheese sandwich (on white bread) as the options, while the “real” menu is full of all kinds of delicious, nutritious things.

    It’s all about marketing and has nothing to do with health. If kids have to eat special food, we have to buy more individually-wrapped and sold things–at higher prices–rather than just buying a little more of what we buy to cook and eat for ourselves. Splintering markets is an old game. But the government should take some responsibility for making sure children do not get used so that corporations can make more money.

    Whether it’s media or food or toys/games, there needs to be regulation when it comes to marketing to kids (should be banned under 14, in my opinion). It’s basic human development (as you clearly explain) that kids can’t regulate themselves in these areas. They are sitting ducks.

    • Kachina says:

      Parents that limit their children’s television programs will allow them to watch Disney movies. Little does the parent understand that Disney had many subtle persuasive messages in his movies. Each movie has the same theme, only the good guys ultimately win and only the beautiful princesses live happily ever after. The good guys are strong and beautiful and the bad guys look like, Brutus.

      We receive our education as a human very young. Our brains are filled with do’s and don’ts. Our teens are lost and alone. Most of them are forced to raise themselves and they are receiving persuasive messages at a high rate of speed. The messages they are receiving are not matching their reality.

      When the Constitution is used to cause harm then we have gone OFF TRACK.. Why has our Supreme Court allowed our Constitution to be used for the benefits of Corporations against the well-being of its citizens? This subject of Influencing Our Children, is serious! We have become complacent and have learned to accept things in our society that should have never been allowed. ANYTHING to do with the minds and hearts of our children Must Be a Great concern for all PARENTS…

  3. Neil says:

    Andrea, I agree with you completely that parents have an essential role to play in fostering healthy eating habits for their children and leading healthy lives by example. I only caution that there likely isn’t a directly inverse relationship between parental involvement and corporate influence on children such that increasing parental involvement will appreciably decrease the harmful effect of corporate influence through advertising. Even if parents are glowing examples of health for their children, deceptive and pervasive advertising by McDonalds or any other corporation still pull at children to eat or ask for unhealthy foods to the detriment of their health. Maybe less so, but the harm still exists.

    Also, Kung-Fu Panda Edamame gets me. Completely racially ignorant. Kung-Fu originated in China, while edamame is a predominantly Japanese food and the term is exclusively associated with Japan. But those are just details to Seapoint Farms, I guess.

  4. Stephanie says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with using familiar and liked characters to get kids to eat healthy. I’ve never known a kid that ate a food they DIDN’T like because it had Batman or Cinderella on the packaging, so if a kid tries something healthy because they want “the Batman one”, and likes it, haven’t we achieved the ACTUAL goal: Getting kids to eat healthy?

    Following the logic in this article, we should stop using rewards and fun to encourage kids entirely. Let’s take away those princess stickers for using the potty, forget giving prizes at school for making progress, and forget dressing up as a favorite character – we wouldn’t want children to buy a Batman costume. That’s morally and ethically wrong since the costume is marketed to a kid, after all. Kids should act and think just like adults, and not care if something is fun, familiar, or rewarding. Oh, wait, adults DO care about that stuff. If nothing issue rewarding, motivating, or interesting, kids are not going to be on board. So when kids stop acting like kids, and caring more about what’s fun vs. what is good for them, THEN they’ll eat their veggies with zero prompting from anyone/anywhere. Since that’ll never happen, can’t we just be glad when our kids DO eat healthy, even if Kung Fu Panda encouraged it?

    • Natasha says:

      My daughter loves asparagus and broccoli because she sees the pleasure with which I devour it. Nobody told her that kids hate veggies all over the world. She doesn’t see the value of a princess sticker because I never used it as a reward and I try to keep anything princess as far away from her as possible. My affection and approval are mush more efficient as a reward. And when she decides to dress up for Halloween we’ll make a project out of it instead of spending two seconds at the store to pick out a gauzy, frilly, putrid pink or purple monstrosity.
      Just my two cents there.

  5. [...] That’s the contention put forth by public health lawyer Michele Simon (Eat Drink Politics) and Susan Linn, Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, in a recent article. [...]

  6. [...] Susan Linn and I explained in our recent article, any marketing to children is deceptive and harmful; it doesn’t matter what the product [...]

  7. [...] A thought provoking article about marketing foods to children. [...]

  8. [...] Susan Linn and I explained in our recent  article, any marketing to children is deceptive and harmful; it doesn’t matter what the product [...]

  9. [...] This post originally appeared on Eat Drink Politics. [...]

  10. [...] asking industry to market “healthier” foods to children. But as Susan Linn and I recently argued, any marketing to children is harmful, regardless of the product’s nutritional content. Instead [...]

  11. In Australia we are pushing hard to get it out of sport as a first port of call. We see sports drinks heavilly marketed towards kids plus other junk food and alcohol.
    The campaign is called Game Changer http://www.gamechanger.org.au
    A tough road however we are kicking some goals. The more awareness that we can create the more parents will hopefully wise up.

  12. [...] industry to market “healthier” foods to children. But as Susan Linn and I recently argued, any marketing to children is harmful, regardless of the product’s nutritional [...]

  13. M says:

    If I may add something, the experience of other nations is quite beside the point. The United States has its own jurisprudence and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment is going to be controlling. Largely ignored by the obesity community, recent cases, including the decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, indicate significant limitations on the scope on anti-obesity policies. Please see my post for more background: http://www.downeyobesityreport.com/2013/02/the-supreme-court-and-the-future-of-obesity-policies/
    Morgan Downey

    • michele says:

      Hi Morgan,

      Thanks for the insight. I read your post and I agree the current SCOTUS makes for an uphill battle for regulating marketing to children. However, we have not had any court consider if marketing to children is deceptive and therefore does not get first amendment protection. Again, I realize this will be a challenge, but those other cases are not directly on this point.

      - Michele

  14. Wow! A lot of great thoughts. People,including kids, do things to meet their needs- not your needs. Preaching and educating will change nothing. Understanding and making kids want to change does work. Joe Camel is gone.Budwieser frogs were eliminated. The Burger King is gone. How is that possible? It is illegal to market bad products to kids.
    It is not ilegal to market to kids.
    Why can’t teachers, parents and health professionals use Marketing techniques to motivate kids to make healthy choices? Make health a fun thing presented by fun loving characters. 5210 is a slogan(a marketing tool) If cleverly presented slogans, spokes characers, involvement of kids in presenting and goal setting will work

  15. Alecia says:

    Just my two cents, but why are parents giving anyone this much conrol over who influences their children, be it advertisement or the government. YOU are the parent. Don’t like the product? Don’t buy it. Don’t like all the ads? Turn off the tv and take your kids to the park. It’s better for them anyway. The best way to change how corporations market is by what you, the consumer buys. As a parent, you control how money gets spent in your household. Why did McDonald’s add apples and milk? Because of consumer trends. If you buy healthy food, you influence the trends toward healthy food AND you influence your children. P.S. just cause my kid says they want something because of some commercial, doesn’t mean I have to give it to them.

  16. [...] there are some food advocates who object to the marketing of anything to kids, even healthy foods, on the grounds [...]

  17. [...] there are some food advocates who object to the marketing of anything to kids, even healthy foods, on the grounds [...]

  18. Trisha K. says:

    I agree with Alecia, but also kids can have access to many products they don’t get at home in school cafeterias and when visiting other kid’s houses. So, it depends.

  19. Kachina says:

    This was a great informative article and I am not sure how much the general public understands the true implications of Corporations dominating the thoughts of children? Advertising/marketing has one purpose in mind, ‘to get in your head’, young and old. Messages, “You and your family cannot live without our product.” Be it social reasons or fulfilling one of our basic needs, security.

    In reality folks, this is the Frankenstein of our time.

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