Thursday, February 24, 2011

Watch Out For These Kids' Food Marketing Gimmicks

Photo credit: Mykl Roventine (Flickr)

Would you be surprised to learn that the food industry spends over $1.6 billion each year marketing to our American youth?  If you've ever spent a half hour watching The Disney Channel or Nickelodeon, you've probably seen plenty of examples of the types of foods that are marketed to kids.  They are typically calorie dense, nutrient poor processed foods, like sugary cereals, sweetened beverages, and convenience foods.  Not only are companies marketing to children on the silver screen, but they're also marketing to kids on the Internet, through mobile phones, in video games, and in schools.  They continue to find sneaky creative ways to reach America's youth.  There's a good reason that companies spend so much marketing to kids. It works.  Not only do children develop a preference for the advertised foods, but the advertisements are also linked with greater consumption of and requests for these foods, higher total calorie intake, and more snacking. Unfortunately, children under 8 years old don't really grasp that they are being marketed to.  While there has been a call for food marketers to voluntarily change marketing strategies for kids' foods, the progress has been minimal, in my opinion.  The good news is that parents don't have to wait for these marketing practices to change. With the division of responsibility in feeding, parents are in charge of what children eat.  However, because of the many inventive advertising strategies of food marketers, sometimes parents' best efforts are sidetracked.  Here's a list of 6 common marketing gimmicks to watch out for when it comes to foods for kids.

  • Spokes-characters, celebrities, and cartoon characters:  Be leery of anything with these on the packaging or in advertisements.  These are the products for which many parents experience "pester power" from their kiddos, and they're also usually some of the least nutritious foods.  You could use this strategy to your advantage by packing your own nutritious snacks with some DIY sticker marketing.
  • Toys and Games:  This is actually a hot button issue right now as Nebraska is currently proposing a bill that would ban toys in fast food kids' meals.  I definitely know these strategies work as I fell for them as a kid.  As you're standing your ground, keep in mind that these toys and games are often cheap and quickly forgettable.
  • Nutrient, Health, or Other Claims:  I see a lot of these claims plastered on some of the least nutritious foods for kids: "High in Vitamin C", "Good Source of Calcium and Vitamin D", "Gluten Free", "Organic", or "Natural".  Beware!  These are often big distractors.  I saw a terrific example of this just the other day in the store.  A package of Kool Aid Jammers boldly claimed "100% Daily Value of Vitamin C".  I would recommend whole foods, like oranges or strawberries, that also contain many other valuable nutrients before I'd recommend Kool-Aid as an excellent source of vitamin C.  While "Gluten Free" and "Organic" foods are hot right now, that doesn't mean they're nutritious.  "Made with Real Milk" or "Made with Real Fruit"?  What else are they made with?  Read the labels, especially the ingredient list.  Are there a lot of ingredients?  Are there numerous sources of added sugar?  Is it high in sodium?  Does it contain trans fat partially hydrogenated oils?
  • Coupons or Promotions: Coupons and promos can definitely offer great ways to save money, if used wisely.  The truth is that these are proven marketing tools.  They're frequently offered on new food products to get consumers to try them in hopes of creating repeat users. I've seen these coupons, and believe me, they're not always for the most nutritious foods.  So think twice before clipping all of those coupons or jumping into the promos.
  • Rewards or Sweepstakes:  These programs are very enticing.  Earn rewards points when purchasing participating food items, and use those points to "buy" things like movie tickets, magazine subscriptions, or restaurant gift cards.  Or earn your chance at an amazing prize in a sweepstakes contest with just one purchase.  If it's prizes you're after, then it might be health-wise to go about getting them the old-fashioned way.  Buy them directly or save up for them.  Otherwise, consider being very picky when it comes to participating in these programs.  
  • Supporting Good Causes:  While programs, like Box Tops For Education, support good causes, they could still be luring you in to buying foods that aren't very nutritious.  Many of the participating food products for the Box Tops program are low nutrition quality, processed foods, like sugary, refined cereals and snacks.  If you want to support the cause, consider donating directly, select more nutritious food items, or opt for non-food items instead.

As a parent, I understand that we've really got quite the challenge on our hands since we can't just put our kids in a bubble and feed them nutritious foods all day long.  The littlest ones may throw a temper tantrum when we choose not to purchase less nutritious foods with the spokes-characters on them.  The older ones may get the food when they're out with friends.  Remember, you still have a significant impact on what your children eat regardless of those struggles.  You have an amazing opportunity to leave your children with a legacy of health and well-being, so remember that amidst the challenges.  If you'd like more info on how to best guide your family through all the food marketing, you may want to check out this tip sheet from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

What kids' food marketing gimmicks do you struggle with most?  How do you manage them?  


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