Are food marketing tactics ruining the health of today's youth?

How food companies are targeting kids

As humans, we have to eat to survive. Unless you grow or raise all the food yourself, purchasing food is a necessity. We’ve come to know the layout of a grocery store like that back of our hand, but how often do we consider the role that marketing plays in the foods that we buy? Countless times, we walk down an aisle and pick up something we didn’t even know we wanted, let alone needed. It’s actually quite frightening to consider how tactics such as playing to emotions and social norms influence what ends up at the checkout counter.

If we, as adults, get sucked into these schemes, what effect do they have on kids? You might be thinking, “It’s just food, it’s not a dangerous or addictive substance like drugs or alcohol,” but when you consider sky-high childhood obesity rates, marketing clearly has some say in what kids eat, and how that impacts their weight. Research has found that increased exposure to food advertising, whether it be on the internet, television or in stores, is linked to increased consumption of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods in kids. It’s not just a North American problem either. Even children in a small, Indian town that were better at recognizing food logos had higher BMIs than those who didn’t recognize the brands (Ueda et al., 2012).

So what tactics are companies using to target this younger audience? One primary strategy is the marketing of “fun foods.” Let’s face it, what kid wants to eat food that is plain and boring when there are neon-colored, wacky-shaped alternatives endorsed by iconic faces? Specifically, fun foods are also associated with cartoons and are often tied to popular culture like TV show characters.

Other tactics include games, puzzles and competitions, free gifts and prizes, and even nutrition and health claims, ironically. It is a smart play, because ultimately, the parents decide what makes it into the shopping cart vs. what stays on the shelf. The kid might not care that their fruit snacks are full of vitamins and minerals, but it sure helps mom or dad overlook the fact that they are also loaded with sugar.

The internet is also a goldmine of ingenious marketing tactics targeting kids. In a way, it is even worse than TV because limits on exposure are virtually non-existent. At least with TV, commercials end and the shows come back on; but on the web, kids can be exposed to food ads for an unlimited amount of time. The internet also provides the opportunity to share what you’ve come across from friends, so not only are you exposed, so is everyone you know on Facebook or Twitter. Companies also target children through advergames; video games that support and promote their products. And all the while, cookies are being tracked for corporate research to make advertisements even more successful than they already are.

As if all of that isn’t pessimistic enough, not much is being done to improve the situation. Quebec is the only Canadian province to implement a legislation that restricts companies from marketing their products to children. In fact they prohibit all commercial ads, food-related and otherwise, directed toward kids less than 13 years of age (Rainea et al., 2013). The rationale is simple: unlike adults, young kids’ brains aren’t developed enough to be critical consumers and weed out potentially harmful ads from everything else. Whether or not the policy actually works is another story. Researchers examined internet marketing by food and restaurant websites toward kids and found that there were no fewer French websites with child-directed content than the English ones, nor were there fewer marketing features. The French sites did however have more healthy lifestyle messages though, so at least it’s a start (Potvin Kent, Dubois, Kent, & Wanless, 2013).

It’s a hard area in which to intervene. We live in a democratic country where many would argue we are free to make whatever decisions we want to when it comes to our food and weight, even if they may be detrimental to our well-being. If kids don’t have the ability to do this themselves, then whose responsibility is it to ensure they eat a healthy, balanced diet, their parents or the government? Since adults aren’t immune to advertising either, it’s a tricky situation either way. Tricks may not be just for kids after all.


Potvin Kent, M., Dubois, L., Kent, E.A., & Wanless, A.J. (2013). Internet marketing directed at children on food and restaurant websites in two policy environments. Obesity, 21, 800-807.

Rainea, K.D., Lobsteinb, T., Landonc,
J., Potvin Kentd, M., Pellerine, S., Caulfieldf, T., Finegoodg, D., Mongeauh, L., Nearya, N., & Spencei, J.C. (2013). Restricting marketing to children: Consensus on policy interventions to address obesity, Journal of Public Health Policy, 34(2), 239-253.

Ueda, P., Tong, L., Viedma, C., Chandy, S.J., Marrone, G., Simon, A., & Lundborg, C.S. (2012). Food marketing towards children: Brand logo recognition, food-related behavior and BMI among 3–13-year-olds in a south Indian town. PLoS ONE, 7(10), 1-7.  

(Photo by Sonny Abesamis on Flickr)