How the Junk Food Giants Target Kids

How the Food Junk Giants Target Kids

Food Marketing and Childhood Obesity A Matter of Policy


Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H.

[This article from the New England Journal

of Medicine reveals just how evil and cynical the food industry

corporations are, systematically going after vulernable children

and their eating habits, knowing there is great profit to

be made by exploiting their naivety, making them sick for dollars.

It seems slightly ironic to me this professor shares the name

of one of these iconic food giants! Scott-Mumby]

Everyone knows that American children are becoming fatter,

but not everyone agrees on the cause. Many of today’s children

routinely consume more calories than they expend in physical

activity, but this imbalance results from many recent changes

in home, school, and neighborhood environments.

Concerned about

the health and economic costs of childhood obesity, in 2004

Congress asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

to examine one potential cause the marketing of foods directly

to children.

The result is a new Institute of Medicine (IOM)

study, Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity,1

that provides a chilling account of how this practice affects

children’s health. Food marketing, the IOM says, intentionally

targets children who are too young to distinguish advertising

from truth and induces them to eat high-calorie, low-nutrient

(but highly profitable) “junk” foods; companies succeed

so well in this effort that business-as-usual cannot be allowed

to continue.

Since the late 1970s, obesity rates have more than

doubled among children 6 to 11 years of age and more than tripled

among those 12 to 19 years of age. As one consequence, type

2 diabetes mellitus is no longer rare in pediatric practice.2

The IOM states its first conclusion politely: the diets of

American children are “in need of improvement.” As

its report makes clear, this is a gross understatement: at

least 30 percent of the calories in the average child’s diet

derive from sweets, soft drinks, salty snacks, and fast food.

Soft drinks account for more than 10 percent of the caloric

intake, representing a doubling since 1980. According to the

U.S. Department of Agriculture, even babies consume measurable

quantities of soft drinks, and pediatricians say it is not

unusual for overweight children to consume 1200 to 2000 calories

per day from soft drinks alone.

Is food marketing responsible?

The IOM analyzes the results of 123 published, peer-reviewed

studies addressing links between food marketing and children’s

preferences, requests, consumption, and adiposity. The IOM

finds that the preponderance of evidence supports the links.

Marketing strongly influences children’s food preferences,

requests, and consumption. The idea that some forms of marketing

increase the risk of obesity, says the IOM, “cannot be


The IOM conducted its study under a considerable

handicap. Companies would not provide proprietary information,

because the IOM is required to make public all documents it

uses. The report reveals why companies insist on keeping such

research private. It lists numerous firms that conduct marketing

research focused even on preschool children, using methods

photography, ethnography, focus groups in an Orwellian-sounding

fashion to elucidate the psychological underpinnings of children’s

food choices, “kid archetypes,” the “psyche

of mothers as the family gatekeeper,” and “parentchild

dyads of information.”

As the IOM documents, this enterprise

is breathtaking in its comprehensive and unabashed effort to

provide a research basis for exploiting the suggestibility

of young children. Although marketers justify appeals to children

as “training” in consumer culture, as free speech,

and as good for business, they are not selling just any consumer

product: they are selling junk foods to children who would

be better off not eating them.

American children spend nearly $30 billion of their own money

annually on such foods, and companies design products to tap

this market. Since 1994, U.S. companies have introduced about

600 new children’s food products; half of them have been candies

or chewing gums, and another fourth are other types of sweets

or salty snacks. Only one fourth are more healthful items,

such as baby foods, bread products, and bottled waters. Companies

support sales of “kids’ foods,” with marketing budgets

totaling an estimated $10 billion annually.1,3 Kellogg spent

$22.2 million just on media advertising to promote 139.8 million

dollars’ worth of Cheez-It crackers in 2004, but these figures

are dwarfed by McDonald’s $528.8 million expenditure to support

$24.4 billion in sales.

Marketing to children is hardly new, but recent methods are

far more intense and pervasive. Television still predominates,

but the balance is shifting to product placements in toys,

games, educational materials, songs, and movies; character

licensing and celebrity endorsements; and less visible “stealth” campaigns

involving word of mouth, cellular-telephone text messages,

and the Internet. All aim to teach children to recognize brands

and pester their parents to buy them. The IOM notes that by

two years of age, most children can recognize products in supermarkets

and ask for them by name.

But the most insidious purpose of marketing is to persuade

children to eat foods made “just for them” not what

adults are eating. Some campaigns aim to convince children

that they know more about what they are “supposed to” eat

than their parents do. Marketers explicitly attempt to undermine

family decisions about food choices by convincing children

that they, not adults, should control those choices.4 Indeed,

children now routinely report that they, and not their parents,

decide what to eat.

The IOM concludes that its data establish a “need and

an opportunity [to] . . . turn food and beverage marketing

forces toward better diets for American children and youth.” This

will be no small task. Junk foods are major sources of revenue

for food companies. In response to threats of lawsuits and

legislation, companies are scrambling to support health and

exercise programs, to announce policies renouncing advertising

directed at children under certain ages, and to make their

products appear more healthful. Hence: vitamin-enriched candy,

whole-grain chocolate cereals, and trans fatfree salty snacks.

Yet candies, soft drinks, and snack foods remain the most

heavily promoted products.1 Companies, says the IOM, must do

better. At the moment, their efforts and those of government

agencies to promote more healthful foods “remain far short

of their full potential.” If the industry does not change

its practices voluntarily, “Congress should enact legislation

mandating the shift.” Strong words, but the IOM can only

advise. Others, however, can act. In January 2006, advocacy

groups announced a Massachusetts lawsuit to enjoin Kellogg

and Viacom, owner of the Nickelodeon television network, from

promoting junk foods to children.5 Dozens of state legislatures

have introduced bills to curb food marketing, and parent and

advocacy groups are demanding bans on food marketing in schools.

Such efforts may push U.S. policies in the direction of those

of at least 50 other countries that regulate television advertising

aimed at children. Australia, for example, bans food advertisements

meant for children younger than 14 years of age; the Netherlands

bans advertisements for sweets to those younger than 12; and

Sweden bans the use of cartoon characters to promote foods

to children younger than 12. Although such actions have not

eliminated childhood obesity rates in these countries are increasing,

although they remain lower than the U.S. rate they may help

to slow current trends. In contrast, U.S. regulations apply

only to time: commercials may take up to 12 minutes per hour

during weekdays but “only” 10.5 minutes per hour

on weekends.

The IOM report provides plenty of evidence to support additional

policy actions. Worth serious consideration, I believe, are

restrictions or bans on the use of cartoon characters, celebrity

endorsements, health claims on food packages, stealth marketing,

and marketing in schools, along with federal actions that promote

media literacy, better school meals, and consumption of fruits

and vegetables. Without further changes in society, such actions

may not be enough to prevent childhood obesity, but they should

make it much easier for parents and health care providers to

encourage children to eat more healthfully.

Source Information
Dr. Nestle is a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public

health at New York University, New York.

An interview with Dr. Nestle can be heard at


  1. McGinnis JM, Gootman JA, Kraak VI, eds. Food marketing to

    children and youth: threat or opportunity? Washington, D.C.:

    National Academies Press, 2006.

  2. Koplan JP, Liverman CT, Kraak VI, eds. Preventing childhood

    obesity: health in the balance. Washington, D.C.: National

    Academies Press, 2005.

  3. California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, Consumers Union. Out

    of balance: marketing of soda, candy, snacks and fast foods

    drowns out healthful messages. San Francisco: Consumers Union,

    September 2005. (Accessed May 25, 2006, at

  4. Pestering parents: how food companies market obesity to children.

    Washington, D.C.: Center for Science in the Public Interest,

    November 2003. (Accessed May 25, 2006, at

  5. Parents and advocates will sue Viacom & Kellogg. Press

    release of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington,

    D.C., January 18, 2006. (Accessed May 25, 2006, at

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