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10 Junk Food Marketing Tricks That Target Your Kids

By Leslie

Saying that junk food is marketed to children is a little like announcing the sky is blue or that water is wet: it’s so obvious that talking about it feels almost redundant. But the obviousness of the situation is just symptomatic of the fact that we’ve all grown so accustomed to our kids being targeted by the producers of junk food that we’re sadly unsurprised by it. It happens so much that it starts to become background noise. The first step in cutting out that noise, though, is to become aware of the ways that marketers use a variety of ploys and tactics to get at children, who lack the education and discernment abilities to make smart and informed choices about the ads they see. Kids’ brains are, in a sense, helpless against the onslaught of marketing. Check out this list of advertising approaches to children so you’ll be better prepared to help your kids make the right choice about what they eat.

  1. The prominent use of athletes and celebrities: Even though athletes might not want the job — Charles Barkley once said in an ad, "Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids" — they and other celebrities are routinely recruited to appear in commercials, print and online ads, and on packages for food items that aren’t remotely healthy. This gives the ads a powerful and alluring subtext, albeit a misleading one, that tells children not only that the product in question is endorsed by their favorite celebrity, but that if they buy the product, they can become that celebrity. It tells children that eating a certain meal or snack will let them look good, run faster, or in some other way perform above and beyond their own ability. Coca-Cola is a major sponsor for Fox’s American Idol (the judges even have giant Coke-branded cups on their table), which lets them send viewers the coded message that drinking Coke will turn them into the next Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood. Not true.
  2. The use of wacky packaging: Marketers want kids to eat junk food by viewing the process as an exciting experience. They’re not just loading up on sugar, they’re doing it with attitude and an anti-authority flare. (You know, like Poochie.) Kids probably won’t eat yogurt of their own volition, but they will eat yogurt they can squeeze into their mouths like toothpaste from a tube. The same goes for cereals, which are loaded with sugar and food coloring. Products like Froot Loops use bright, eye-catching colors adorned with cartoon characters designed to attract a child’s eye. Cereal boxes for adult products look almost austere in comparison. Marketing is always superficial, but it’s egregiously so when it comes to packaging aimed at children.
  3. The use of new media: Today’s marketers have a unique edge over their forerunners: they can target children with ads and games that appear on devices that parents often ignore, can’t work, or write off as non-threatening. Case in point: McDonald’s, not exactly known as a bastion of healthy eating, has special websites for kids and tweens, stocked with games, videos, and pages you can sign up to personalize as a way to more firmly ally yourself with the brand. (Just typing that felt gross.) Advertisers know that by reaching children and tweens on cell phones and via Facebook and other digital platforms, they can speak directly to them without a parental filter. That’s great for business, and terrible for our health.
  4. Tie-ins to TV shows and movies: This one runs parallel with the athlete and celebrity endorsements, but it’s a problem unto itself. Those other endorsements use famous people who are in other ways unrelated to the product, bringing them on like a guest host; movie and TV series tie-ins explicitly use the characters and stories of popular entertainment and marry them to the food brand. Think of pretty much every Happy Meal you’ve ever seen, or eaten when you were a kid. They all have toys that are usually linked to TV series and movies that themselves target children. When the kids see that their favorite fantasy heroes are theirs for the taking inside boxes of high-calorie and -sodium and -sugar meals, they’ll stop at nothing to get them.
  5. Placement in schools: Marketers also know that children spend most of their time under the guidance of parents or guardians, and that they only get a few minutes to themselves when they’re at school. That’s why junk food companies push for placement in vending machines in schools nationwide, where kids can buy their treats without a parent around to make them trade the SweetTarts for an apple. This tactic as much admits that the food being sold is no good — why else would they try to sneak it past parents? — but it’s still a big obstacle for families who want their children to eat healthy. This issue’s also a political hot-button, with some officials declaring that schools should ditch junk-food vending machines altogether while others say that’s too much of an overreach.
  6. Low-down locations in stores: Kids are short. Children’s cereal and snack items are on lower shelves in the grocery store. This is not a coincidence. Next time you cruise the cereal aisle, take a moment to look at what foods are placed at an adult’s eye level and which ones are on the bottom shelves. You’ll likely realize that things like Raisin Bran and Special K cereals that make claims about weight loss and heart health are placed toward the top. Down below, you’ll see items like Apple Jacks, Honey Smacks, Froot Loops, and those giant bags of off-brand kid cereals that might as well be nothing more than bags of sugar and tiny shovels. Beyond cereal, though, the problem extends to other aisles, and especially the check-out counter. Candy is often placed lower down, making it a constant presence in a child’s life. It becomes something they see all the time and grow to want. It’s advertising through sheer ubiquity, and it’s hard to avoid. The best path is to keep your child with you and politely but firmly turn down requests for the junk.
  7. Running ads during cartoon shows: Kids love cartoon, whether it’s a Saturday morning entertainment block or a blast of them after school. But young children have a tough time navigating the murky waters between programming and advertising. Younger viewers often are unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, which is why violent programming can be so dangerous; it doesn’t work to tell them it’s just make-believe because their brains can’t process the layers of deception and storytelling. Similarly, by running ads for junk food during programs aimed at kids, marketers are able to mix the pitches in with the programs until the whole thing blurs in a child’s mind. They aren’t able to distance themselves from the ads; they merely know that, embedded within the series they love, there’s a plea to eat something or buy something that they didn’t know about but now absolutely have to have. It’s a canny way for marketers to use the positive experience of watching a beloved program and link it to the desire for candy.
  8. Toys, toys, toys: Kids can be sweet, but they can also be pretty dumb. They’ll do just about anything if it means getting a toy. As a result, junk food of all kinds is sold to kids as including a special toy, a collectible item, or just a random trinket that they’re sure to love. This isn’t anything new; Happy Meals have been around since the late 1970s, and Cracker Jack showed up in the 19th century. By packaging the junk with a prize, marketers use toys as a delivery device for junk food. This is, as with most marketing moves, extremely sneaky and smart in a bad way. It transfers the child’s desire for the food onto the toy, and it lets the publicists place the emphasis on the prizes involved instead of the unhealthy food with which they’re bundled.
  9. Pretending they’re healthy: Cereal ads always end by showing the product and claiming that it’s "part of this nutritious breakfast," or maybe "part of a balanced breakfast." This is how marketers’ cover their own butts from legal challenges that they’re peddling junk food as a morning meal (which, well, they are). Whenever the ad talks about a balanced breakfast, it always shows the bowl of high-sugar and unhealthy cereal (like Fruity Pebbles) surrounded by piles of fruit, whole wheat toast, and other actual food items. The reality is that it takes all that other stuff to balance out the poor health effects of digging into just one bowl of children’s sugary cereal, and even that’s with skim or low-fat milk. Don’t be fooled by these ads, and more than that, don’t let your kids be fooled, either. Talk with them about the commercials and point out just what it means to have a real nutritious breakfast.
  10. They lie by omission: It’s not that marketers make false claims about the health benefits of junk food; rather, it’s that they gloss over the negative stuff. The trick in this case is more about the absence of truth than the presence of a lie, an approach to marketing that’s at once tougher and easier to spot. On one hand, you can safely assume that every ad for a food that looks even slightly bad for you is hiding something that will take you some time and research to uncover. On the other, the practice is so widespread that it becomes dependable, which means it gets easier to steer clear of stuff that’s blasted at you and your kids in bright ads, tacky packages, and candy-colored handouts. No processed food item or treat can be nearly as good for you (or not-bad for you, as it were) as marketers make it out to be. Stick with real food for your kids, and if you want to indulge in some sweets, do your homework so you know what’s in them. Parents are the first and last line of defense in the battle for healthy children.

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