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"WeListen" Blog

Marketing to Kids: Food Brands Walk a Fine Line

Each year, the American food industry spends $1.6 billion marketing foods to children, and many parents and childhood health advocates do not like it. Opponents of advertising to children sometimes have a point, because the majority of products advertised to children are products with low nutritional value, often coupled with high levels of sugar, calories, and fats, with examples including sugary cereals, baked goods, and carbonated soft drinks.

Television is far from the only screen children encounter on a typical day.

The average American child from age 2 to 17 sees anywhere from 4,400 to 7,600 television commercials for food products every year. Fast food television ads are prominent, with children in 2009 seeing 21 percent to 39 percent more television ads for fast food than children did in 2003. Advertising to kids is certainly something food brands do, but there are ethical concerns about the practice.

Marketing to Kids Is Effective – Perhaps Too Effective

Children influence their parents’ buying choices, and some of them have their own ability to purchase things. Plus, they are tomorrow’s adult consumers. It is obvious why brands market to children, with everything from mass media ads to clever food packaging design. If these tactics ultimately appeal to parents as well (such as food packaging designs that are easy to open and reseal), then so much the better. The problem is, food marketing to children increases preference for advertised foods, whether or not they are healthy. This leads to higher calorie consumption, which is associated with today’s higher rates of childhood obesity

Food Marketing Channels That Reach Kids

Parents who do their supermarket shopping with kids in tow are all too aware of the in-store marketing channels that reach kids, from eye-catching food packaging designs to displays of snacks and candies designed to be displayed at kids’ eye level. Of course, television ads are immensely popular. Some of them attempt to draw in parents’ interest as well, by doing things like highlighting vitamin or fiber content. 

Spending for ads in interactive video games is also growing, as millions of children (including young ones ages 3 to 11) visit virtual games online every month. Social media advertising reaches children and has the potential to go “viral,” reaching millions and gaining products outsized results for their advertising investment. 

Ways to Address Troublesome Marketing Trends

Many brands are voluntarily modifying their advertising practices, in hopes of avoiding the possibility of legislation that would crack down harder. 

Certain practices and trends in food marketing to children are troubling to parents and childhood health advocates. Some consumer advocates and public health officials want to use both legal and policy initiatives to curb some of the more egregious food advertising to children. Industry self-regulation also takes place, with, for example, General Mills pledging to work with the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of the Better Business Bureau to adhere to advertising guidelines for ads targeted at children under age 12. 

Some policymakers are considering modifying licensing laws or other legal remedies to prompt retailers to create healthier checkout lane environments and point-of-sale product placements that put more of the information in front of parents rather than children. More vending machine contracts are emphasizing healthier options, such as the inclusion of water brands rather than sugary sodas in vending machines children are likely to encounter. Federal law now requires schools to limit marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages (such as those in vending machines).

Though laws exist governing what food brands can and cannot do in food advertising directed at children, and though many brands are rethinking their children’s advertising policies for the Information Age, there is still plenty of scope for brands to walk the fine line between not marketing to children at all and creating a marketing free-for-all designed to get children to cajole parents into caving to their every demand. 

Whether it is in their food packaging design, in-store displays, television ads, or online ads, brands cannot be seen as disregarding responsible advertising practices while staying within the letter of the law. Brands that create ways to tread the fine line of smart, effective food advertising to children are likely to be the ones that remain successful with young consumers once they grow up and have children of their own.


PKG Branding Design brings together the expertise of CPG branding and design, identifying the needs of our customers and helping to educate them on the most recent trends. 

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