Kids Under the Influence

The psychology behind marketing to young consumers

Coca-Cola Marketing and Children's Health

Coca-Cola marketing supports recycling in Chicago, but at what cost to children?

Coca-Cola has donated $2.6 million to provide recycling bins for every house and small apartment building in Chicago, in return for images of Coke products on the bins. A win-win for Coca-Cola and Chicago’s short-term budget, but at what cost to Chicago’s children?

The same week, Coke also announced its new digital campaign: “The AHH Effect campaign is an unconventional and bold step for the brand to connect with teens. Through these experiences, we’re hoping to create the kind of unique digital journey of discovery that today’s teens crave.” These two announcements appear to be unrelated except, as Huffington Post’s Anna Lappe notes, those recycling bins will sit in the same alleys that serve as playgrounds for Chicago’s youth, especially those who live in neighborhoods without adequate public spaces. Just check out the clearly child-directed game on CokeRecycling.com

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These efforts are all part of Coca-Cola’s aggressive marketing efforts, much of it targeted to teens (which the company defines as children 12 years and older). In an interview with Advertising Age, a senior VP at the company stated: "We can't afford not to talk to teens.  You can't think, 'Teens already know  us' and skip a couple of years. Every six years there's a new population of teens in the world."

The Yale Rudd Center’s Sugary Drink FACTS report, a comprehensive analysis of sugary drink marketing to youth, documents the broad range of nontraditional marketing tactics the brand uses to reach young people. Coke ranked sixth in amount of traditional TV advertising to youth, but children and teens were exposed to more advertising for Coke than any other brand in every other type of marketing we measured: social media, product placements on TV, food company websites, advertising on other websites, mobile apps and other ads, and radio. As a result, even children younger than 12 were exposed to more advertising for Coke than for any other brand, even child-targeted products such as Capri Sun and Kool-Aid.

The negative effects of TV advertising for high-sugar products with little or no nutritional value have been well documented. It is much more difficult for researchers to measure and assess the effects of non-traditional forms marketing, such as logo placement sponsorships, product placements in TV and other media, internet and mobile marketing, and social media. However, psychological models of persuasion, such as the Knowledge Persuasion Model and the Food Marketing Defense Model, predict that these subtle forms of marketing can be highly effective. When a consumer notices a marketing message and consciously acknowledges it as a persuasive attempt, then that person can actively counterargue that message and successfully defend against it. But that task is virtually impossible – the average consumer sees an estimated 3,000 marketing messages daily – and marketers count on that. Through the mere exposure effect, repeated exposure to brand logos (such as a Coke image on a recycling bin) will result in greater affinity for those brands over time. In addition, precisely because consumers do not notice these subtle logo placements or believe they have no effect, they can be even more effective than traditional advertising that attempts to persuade directly.

Another way that non-traditional forms of marketing attempt to influence young consumers is by disguising their persuasive intent. Older children and adolescents are highly skeptical of obvious forms of advertising, so marketers have developed techniques to deactivate these skeptical responses. By embedding advertising messages inside a game on a company website (e.g., CokeRecycling.com), in a mobile app (e.g., Coke Cheers, “share a Coke with a friend”) or within a television program such as American Idol, most consumers are enjoying the game or show and do not think about the brand messages as “advertising.” Social media represents one of the most recent developments in marketing to young people “under the radar” in this way. Coca-Cola has more Facebook “likes” than any other brand except Facebook (almost 65 million as of today). The company’s Facebook posts are spread virally through the friend networks of these 65 million people, disguised as posts from friends. Given the developmental importance of peer relationships for adolescents, this form of disguised advertising is especially disturbing to many public health experts.

Coca-Cola is not the only company that advertises to youth through these subtle and often disguised marketing techniques. A recent Federal Trade Commission report documents that many fast food, beverage, and candy companies commonly utilize sponsorships, digital and social media to target adolescents. However, Coca-Cola may be the leader in their use. In fact, the company was selected by Advertising Age as “Marketer of the Year” in 2011 for its use of “creative stunts and strategic partnerships to get a lot done on a smaller budget.”  Mayor Emanuel of Chicago apparently doesn’t see the issue – he believes in “personal responsibility.” But what about corporations’ responsibility to refrain from unfairly targeting teenagers with disguised and unfair marketing messages for products that put their health at risk?

Jennifer L. Harris, Ph.D., M.B.A., is at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

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