Kids Under the Influence

The psychology behind marketing to young consumers

What’s a Parent to Do?

It's a challenge for parents to protect their kids from unhealthy food marketing

This past fall, I had the honor to attend a convening at the White House, hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama. The convening gathered together about 100 leaders from the public health community and food and media companies to initiate an ongoing discussion about how to address the harmful effects of unhealthy food marketing on children. According to Mrs. Obama, “The goal here is to empower parents instead of undermining them as they try to make healthier choices for their families.”

In her appeal to industry leaders to market responsibly to children, the First Lady praised their creativity and resources, “And fortunately you have everything it takes to get this done because through the magic of marketing and advertising, all of you, more than anyone else, have the power to shape our kids’ tastes and desires.”

But industry leaders do not want to take credit publicly for shaping kids’ tastes and desires. We consistently hear the same message in our discussions with food industry executives, “We only respond to consumer demand.  If parents didn’t want their children to eat these products, they should learn how to say ‘no’.”

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But it makes no business sense for food and beverage companies to spend $1.8 billion every year in marketing specifically targeted to children and adolescents if they honestly believe that parents make all the food choices for their children. And it’s hypocritical to blame parents for making poor choices when they harness their enormous marketing resources directed at children specifically to get around “gatekeeper Mom” (in the words of the marketers). Tactics like adding vitamin C to Popsicles or claims that Fruit Roll-ups are made with “real fruit”—without mentioning the corn syrup, dried corn syrup and sugar also in the product—are designed to make Moms feel ok about buying these products when their children ask for them.

We often hear another common argument for why food and media companies do not need to take responsibility for their child-targeted marketing practices: “If parents don’t want their children to see food advertising, they shouldn’t let them sit in front of the TV or computer for hours. Send them outside to play instead! ”

Companies can get away with these arguments because parents are an easy target. Most Americans—including most parents—believe that parents are responsible for protecting their children from harmful influences in the media.

To illustrate just how difficult it would be for parents to stop their kids from seeing marketing messages for fast food and wanting the unhealthy products they push, the Rudd Center communications team created a clever video.

We have received a lot of positive feedback on the video, but I was intrigued by one viewer’s response: “Just show kids why advertising is bad, and anyone trying to get profit has a motive to lie to you and exploit you. Then you can safely let them see any advertisement as much as you want (emphasis added).”

This viewpoint exemplifies early theories of consumer development—first proposed by Ward, Wackman and Wartella in the 1970’s—when companies first started to target advertising to children. These theories posit that once children understand the persuasive intent of advertising they possess a “cognitive filter” to protect them from unwanted influence.

This belief that children can be “inoculated” against the effects of advertising is the basis for teaching media literacy in schools. No one would argue that teaching children that advertising sometimes tries to exploit and even lie to consumers would be a bad thing. Except for one thing—there is no evidence that understanding the motives behind food advertising actually reduces its effects on children’s food preferences.

Many researchers have tried to show that media literacy training can teach children to resist advertising for unhealthy foods. These studies do show that media literacy can increase children’s skepticism about food advertising. However, recent research also shows that greater skepticism does not reduce the effectiveness of food advertising.

Researchers at the Rudd Center – and other colleagues who study food marketing—can attest to just how difficult it is to resist these messages. We probably know more about food companies’ marketing tactics and motives than almost anyone. I have an MBA in marketing from the Wharton School and worked as a marketing executive for 18 years—and my colleagues and I have been studying food marketing to children for ten years. But at the end of a day spent watching fast food advertisements for our research, most of us still have to fight cravings for a Dairy Queen Blizzard or McDonald’s french fries.

Fast food restaurants and other food and beverage companies know much more about how to make their products impossible to resist than psychologists or children’s health advocates know about how to effectively counteract their appeals.

In the short term, it is good business for advertisers who target children to deflect criticism by saying they have no role in shaping kids’ tastes and desires—and blaming parents for poor parenting. It is also in their best interests to support initiatives—such as media literacy and promoting physical activity—that place the onus on the individual to resist unwanted influence. But they cannot also claim that their actions support the First Lady’s efforts to empower parents and help them raise healthy children.

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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