All kid-targeted food marketing is harmful

By: David Monahan, CCFC Campaign Manager

You’ve probably heard this one: “Marketing tricks work to get kids to eat junk food, so let’s use them to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables!” 

Some well-intentioned groups and individuals have jumped on that bandwagon—including Michelle Obama, who supported a campaign to use Sesame Street characters to encourage kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. A 2016 Cornell University study said decorating school salad bars with colorful banners and showing an enticing program on a TV monitor increased the number of students taking vegetables. News reports gobbled up the report as evidence that these tactics work, even though the study didn’t establish that the students actually ate more salads or address long-term impact—and they ignored the harmful impact marketing has on children. Reporters also overlooked the fact that the study came from Cornell’s “Food and Brand Lab,” which receives funding from industry trade groups and proclaims a mission to “invent healthy eating solutions for consumers, companies, and communities.”

John Scherer is one of the food and nutrition commentators enthusiastic about tricking kids into eating their veggies. He wrote in Los Angeles Magazine:

You know why food companies spend so much money on advertising to kids, and so much money to protect their rights to do so? Because it works. Because kids are idiots and their brains aren’t fully formed enough to be able to control their emotions and understand consequences. Kids are stupid little manipulatable monsters who can manipulate their parents into buying things so they’ll stop throwing a public tantrum in the middle of a Ralph’s snack aisle, and that fact is preyed upon heavily by marketing executives in suits peddling artificially colored poison.

Sadly, Scherer is on board for more manipulating:

Fight fire with fire. For every co-branded piece of high-fructose corn syrup-laden trash put out there, why not slap a picture of BB-8 on a package of carrots and trick kids into thinking that their favorite movie robot is going to hate them if they don’t eat their vegetables? Turn all that negative manipulation into positive manipulation. Disney can even rebrand it to FUN-ipulation or IMAGIN-ipulation and really lean into the new marketing strategy.

“When those Iron Man bananas finally hit shelves,” Scherer said, “I won’t be able to throw my money at them fast enough. And so should you.”

No, thanks. At CCFC, we’re not buying those bananas, and we’re not buying the idea that companies should ever manipulate children. We get that Scherer is being deliberately provocative, but kids are not “stupid manipulatable monsters.” They just happen to be developmentally vulnerable to advertising, and as adults, it’s our job to protect children, not exploit their vulnerabilities. 

As CCFC’s Founder Dr. Susan Linn and Senior Adviser Michele Simon wrote in a piece entitled “The Dark Side of Marketing Healthy Food to Children”: 

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.

CCFC is excited to join forces with organizations and experts who agree that it’s never right to target vulnerable children with food advertising, whether you’re pushing Fritos or fruit. We have become the first organization outside of Canada to endorse the Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition. The Coalition is led by Canada’s Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Childhood Obesity Foundation and is based on the Ottawa Principles, which call for the restriction of all food marketing to children 16 and younger.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation has just released a powerful 2017 Report on the Health of Canadians. The report notes that kids are now bombarded with food and beverage advertising on the internet, and it’s having a devastating impact on their health. The average Canadian child spends almost eight hours a day in front of screens, the report finds, and sees food marketing embedded in video games, social media, and even educational materials. More than 90% of the foods advertised on the internet are unhealthy, with more sugar, salt, and/or fat than the World Health Organization recommends. The report points to the success of a Quebec law, in effect since 1980, which bans targeting kids under 13 with commercial advertising for any goods or services. Quebec has the lowest obesity rate in Canada among children ages 6-11, and the highest rate of vegetable and fruit consumption. 

CCFC was delighted when Panera Bread recently announced that they will not use toys, characters, or other enticements to sell kids’ meals, and that they are challenging other restaurants to do the same. We’re presently working to spread that challenge to other restaurants, and to food and beverage manufacturers as well. 

We look forward to working with the Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition to advocate for laws that restrict all food and beverage marketing to kids. Whether it’s junk food or healthier food, luring kids to make food choices with manipulative tactics makes meal time a game. The development of healthy eating habits isn’t just about which foods children eat, but also about how they eat them and why.