Jennifer L. Harris Ph.D., M.B.A.

Kids Under the Influence

The Opportunity to Educate Parents about Junk Food Marketing

Food companies manipulate kids and parents to create lifelong loyal customers.

Posted Mar 15, 2013

“Food marketing doesn’t affect my kids,” is something I hear a lot from parents when I tell them about my research. Or they tell me that it makes their kids beg them for products they see advertised, but they also blame themselves for giving in to their kids’ requests to go to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal toy or buy the sugary cereal advertised on Nickelodeon. Above all, they believe that there’s nothing they can do about the barrage of unhealthy food marketing their children see on a daily basis. I used to think that too.

My background is a bit unusual because I was a marketer and a mother before I became a psychologist. As a marketer, I didn’t know about the psychology of what we did – I cared whether my campaigns increased sales without thinking about how and why they worked. And as a mother, I had a feeling that kids’ products like Sunny D or Fruit Gushers weren’t that nutritious, but they were marketed specifically for kids and lots of mothers I knew bought them. So how bad could they be? But as a psychologist – now that I have studied learning, persuasion, and child and adolescent development – I am appalled at the way that food companies manipulate kids and their parents in their quest to create lifelong loyal customers.

My kids are both adults now, so there’s not much I can do anymore to influence their media use and eating habits. But there are things I would have done differently if I had a background in psychology when my kids were still young. So for my first Psychology Today blog, I thought I would share a few things that I wish I had known when my kids were little.

Marketing food is about emotions, not product attributes. Thinking about it objectively, there’s really not much difference between Coke and Pepsi – but Coca-Cola is the number 1 brand in the world and its “Open Happiness” campaign is a brilliant success. Not because it provides any rational reasons to consume Coke – those cute polar bears just makes you smile! Advertisers understand the psychology of classical conditioning. The positive emotions consumers feel when watching the ads generate positive associations with the product itself that, once established, are almost impossible to extinguish.

Digital media has dramatically changed how companies market to young people. It’s difficult for parents to keep up. Today kids are bombarded with branded food games on company websites (i.e., advergames) and mobile apps; interactive display advertising on other children’s sites, like and; product placements embedded within video games and song lyrics; and company posts to share with friends on Facebook and Twitter. These techniques are designed to disguise their main purpose – selling products – and viral tactics take advantage of young people’s unique susceptibility to peer influence.

Educating kids will not solve the problem. It would be great if we could solve the obesity crisis by teaching kids about nutrition. But I don’t know any kids who don’t already know that they should eat fruits and vegetables instead of potato chips and cookies – yet advertising has helped convince them that the unhealthy stuff tastes better and is more fun! Teaching media literacy to kids is another potential solution that no one could object to – but there’s also no evidence that kids can learn to defend against the psychologically-based tactics that companies use to appeal to young consumers.

The only sure way to protect children from the harmful effects of food marketing is to reduce their exposure as much as possible. That is the most important thing I wish I’d known when my kids were young. Removing the TV from children’s bedrooms and limiting viewing of commercial television, especially for young children, may be the most beneficial actions that individual parents can take.

Food companies don’t make it easy but parents can demand change. The food industry spends $1.8 billion per year on marketing specifically aimed at children and teens and about one-third of that is TV advertising. The products advertised the most are high in calories, sugar, fat and sodium – fast food, carbonated beverages, sugary cereals, and candy – and directly contribute to poor diet and obesity. However, research from our group at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity shows that when parents understand how food companies target their children, they are outraged. And informed parents can demand that companies stop marketing unhealthy food to children and support their efforts to raise healthy children.

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