Kids Under the Influence

The psychology behind marketing to young consumers

Food Marketing Targets Children in Schools

Schools should be healthy places where kids aren’t targeted with junk food ads

Last month, First Lady Michelle Obama announced the next step in her Let’s Move campaign to reduce childhood obesity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed a new rule that would allow marketing in schools only for foods and beverages that meet “Smart Snacks” standards, the USDA’s new nutrition standards for foods that can be sold in schools outside the school lunch program. According to Mrs. Obama, “Our classrooms should be healthy places where kids aren’t bombarded with ads for junk food. Because when parents are working hard to teach their kids healthy habits at home, their work shouldn’t be undone by unhealthy messages at school.”

It only makes sense. If unhealthy foods can’t be sold to children in schools, companies shouldn’t be allowed to market them in schools either. Even the American Beverage Association and the Grocery Manufacturers Association – two leading food industry trade groups – say they support this new rule.

The final details of the rule have yet to be worked out – the USDA has requested public comments on the proposed rule. But regardless of the specifics, this rule will require all school districts to specifically address food marketing in their school wellness policies – a first step that will hopefully spur a public discussion about food marketing targeted to our children in their schools.

Up to now, food marketing to children in schools has been a well-kept secret. We asked parents about the types of food marketing that their children see most often, and marketing in schools ranked 11th out 15 different types – parents even thought their children saw commercials before movies more often than they encountered marketing in schools.

But nearly all children encounter some sort of food marketing in their schools, often on a daily basis. For example, two-thirds of elementary schools provide food coupons to children as rewards through corporate-sponsored programs such as Pizza Hut’s Book It or Sonic’s Limeades for Learning. One-half of middle schools and seven out of ten high schools have exclusive vending contracts that allow companies to sell and promote sodas, sports drinks and other beverages to students. One-third of high schools serve branded foods in their cafeterias at least once per week, and almost 20% serve it every day. Even in the state of Maine – the only state that prohibits food marketing in schools – researchers found on average 49 food and beverage posters and signs in high schools, with Coke and Gatorade among the top three products advertised.

Yet academic research studies have measured only some forms of school-based marketing. Food companies sponsor fundraisers (e.g., Hershey’s candy sales, McDonald’s McTeacher Nights), offer reward programs to encourage family purchases of their products (e.g., General Mills’ Boxtops for Education), and provide “free” branded educational materials (e.g., Skittles Counting Books) to schools. Our website RuddRootsParents.org provides examples of the many ways that food companies market to children in schools.

Hiding behind what appears to be philanthropy, these programs are nothing more than sophisticated, low-cost marketing tools designed to reach a captive audience of children in a place they visit every day – their schools.

In fact, food companies spend almost $150 million per year in marketing to children inside schools, exceeded only by their spending on television advertising and premiums. And more than 90% of school-based marketing promotes sugary drinks and fast food – two of the leading contributors to obesity and poor diets among children.

But increased understanding of the prevalence of unhealthy food marketing in schools is just the first step. School officials are responsible for our children’s health and well-being, and most take this responsibility very seriously. So the fact that they allow companies to market to children in their schools clearly demonstrates the need for increased understanding of the potential costs of this marketing on children’s health and well-being – and a public discussion of whether the financial benefits from these arrangements outweigh the costs.

In my next blog, I will present those costs and benefits – including the psychology of why companies choose to invest in marketing to children in their schools, and why parents and others who care about our children should be concerned.

But for now, we thank the First Lady and the USDA for taking this important first step to reducing commercialism in schools. And we urge anyone who cares about keeping schools a healthy place for children to express their support for the USDA rules. PreventObesity.net has a form to make that easy. You can also visit RuddRootsParents.org for more information about food marketing in schools and ways that you can help address unhealthy food marketing in your own children’s schools.

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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