Marketing Food to Your Kids

Pernicious ads saturate children’s media. Yes, they’re advertising toys (truly a bane to any parent’s existence). But they’re also spending billions of dollars advertising industrial waste products which have been repackaged in colorful containers and marketed as food.

Generally speaking, I like Michael Pollan’s rule regarding food advertising: if you see a food advertised, don’t buy it. That’s because if a food has advertising dollars behind it, chances are good that it’s an industrialized food product rather than Real Food. A good exception to this rule are the advertisers at Real Food Media which I promote on this site — each and every one of these producers has a commitment to creating healthful, ecologically-sustainable food.

Yesterday, the FTC released a report from a hearing on marketing food to kids, and my reaction is mixed.

In a recent post by Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, she summed up the research on how food marketing affects children:

[Some say] the industry doesn’t need regulation, as its self-regulation policies are working just fine.

The research, alas, says otherwise. According to a report released today, self-regulation is a joke. An independent investigation of industry marketing-to-kids practices, by Dale Kunkel and his colleagues from the University of Arizona, concludes:

* Most ads for foods produced by self-regulating companies are for junk foods
* Ads for healthy foods are virtually non-existent
* Licensed cartoon characters are increasingly used to market junk foods to kids
* At least a quarter of junk food ads come from companies that do not self-regulate
* Improvements are negligible

She then concludes:

The food industry’s job is to sell more food, not less. Because restrictions on advertising are not in industry’s best interest, it is unreasonable to expect self-regulation to work. That is why we need government to get in there and establish some checks and balances.

As always, I feel the contradictory pulls of my somewhat libertarian “the-government-should-keep-its-nose-out-of-my-life” ideals and the cold, hard fact that there are some industries which have grown far too large and must be regulated in order to protect the people. I count the industrialized food industry among those behemoths.

The truth is simple: advertising works. And if a company can spend millions of dollars advertising its highest profit margin foods (read: the cheapest food products to make because of the overwhelming inclusion of industrial waste such as high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil as ingredients), then you can bet that millions of kids across the nation will start pestering their parents for those foods.

There are measures a family can take to protect its children from food marketing. My own family has eschewed the TV. Combine that with the fact that my children are home schooled (and thereby somewhat sheltered from the sort of marketing that goes on in schools), and my only real stumbling blocks come when my children spend time in other homes.

Yet, I’m not naive. I know my situation is unique, and it’s certainly not a prescription for every family out there. So how else can parents shelter their children from the effects of such ubiquitous advertising?

The FTC hearing concluded with a set of voluntary standards for advertisers to comply with. The proposals involve only marketing foods and drinks to children if they provide a “meaningful contribution to a healthful diet,” and suggest restricting advertising of foods that are considered high in saturated fat, sugar or salt. (source)

So, fellow parents (or other interested adults), what are your thoughts on this issue?

(photo by chrismetcalf)


  1. says

    We can’t go without TV (hubby is a sports fan) or rely on internet TV just yet, but we do have a DVR on which we record everything we watch. Now true, if there’s a new “I’m a Mac” commercial, we stop and watch it, but for the most part we just zip right though commercials entirely.
    .-= Local Nourishment´s last blog post …Eating Cage Free Eggs? =-.

    • says

      Yeah, I should add that we aren’t completely without TV. We have a few shows we stay current on via the internet, well after the kids are in bed. But this is a good idea — only allowing pre-recorded shows and being sure to fast forward through commercials.

  2. says

    “As always, I feel the contradictory pulls of my somewhat libertarian ‘the-government-should-keep-its-nose-out-of-my-life’ ideals and the cold, hard fact that there are some industries which have grown far too large and must be regulated in order to protect the people.”

    You took the words right out of my mouth. :)

    I agree that parents should take the bulk of responsibility for what their children are exposed to. In a way we’re a TV-free home and in a way we aren’t. My husband and I have a real distaste for commercials in general (aside from the occasional funny one), so we don’t watch much TV at all, and just stick to DVDs. My kids mostly watch pre-recorded/Netflix shows with no commercials. Sometimes I do let them watch PBS, which has a few commercials I don’t like, but we don’t go to McDonald’s at all, and Chuck E. Cheese on the very rare occasion, so it’s not a problem for me, because if I’m not taking them, they aren’t going! And I don’t buy the packaged junk, so my kids don’t eat it. Of course, my kids are young so it’s not hard to have this much control over what’s going on. I imagine it gets harder as they become more independent, especially if you’re unable to start healthy habits young.

    However, there is a flip side to the responsible parents thing. Some parents can’t (or won’t) have enough control over what comes into their kids lives. At that point, do we let the kids suffer the consequences of choices they can’t handle? Sometimes I really think its unfair to place so much pressure on the shoulders of young children just because there isn’t an adult available.

    It is important to have personal responsibility, but at the same time, my beliefs dictate I shouldn’t just let others fall to the wayside. Especially the young generation who is powerless to fight this by themselves.
    .-= Elizabeth @ The Nourished Life´s last blog post …My Version of Easy Homemade Raw Milk Yogurt =-.

    • says

      That’s a great point about children being powerless to fight advertising on their own, and it might just be the reason I wouldn’t feel bad if these FTC “suggestions” were turned into real regulations.

  3. says

    We homeschool also, which really does a lot to insulate my kids from the food ads. They are mostly exposed to these commercialized junk foods at church and friend’s homes. I have tried hard to teach my children why we eat the way we do, and why we don’t eat the junk. I’ve tried hard to help them recognize the correlation between how they feel when they eat our good food at home, and how they feel when they eat the junk elsewhere. I’ve also tried to teach them how to identify a healthy or non-healthy food so they can make wise choices when I am not around. In their younger years they had no discretion; later they learned discretion but lacked self-control; now they are showing both discretionary choices as well as good self-control as they can recognize the bad and choose not to eat it. The oldest two are now 12 and 9. They are reading labels everywhere they go! My youngest, 4, still needs lots of parental direction of course. But as I read the responses to your thoughtful post I thought that really the best way to help kids make the right choices is just to teach them at home with every meal and eventually they will take ownership.

    Thanks for a great blog!

  4. Crystal says

    Just a note of what we had to deal with in the past two holiday celebration days, at school & church: second-grader’s holiday party where they made reindeer cupcakes and were given candy treats in a bag, next day, same child given cookie, hot chocolate and M&M’s at school, then a cookie at church. So, at home, we eat real, homemade healthy food. Away from home, another story. My problem is, I would like to have special treats at home (especially during Christmas holidays): natural candy canes, homemade cookies, homemade white bread, a treat in our Advent Calendar. But, I feel like I cannot even do our special treats when away from home my child gets the artificial special treats! Any suggestions??????????

  5. says

    I think that it is also important to teach our kids about advertising. It’s a media literacy kind of thing and an important part of homeschooling, in my opinion. I have told my kids on several occasions that things look much cooler on TV than they do in real life. I will sometimes criticize the commercial or read the fine print out loud, if there is any. I’ll tell them that the companies spent a lot of time and money to make that toy look like a lot of fun. I will say that they (the companies) try to make their products look better than they are because they WANT us to buy them.

    My 6 year old gets this and has for a while. He’s not one who likes to be “tricked.” The not-quite-4-year-old hasn’t been exposed to as many commercials (we used to DVR and skip commercials when we had cable, now we have Netflix and a video store). They really only see commercials when they are at Granny or Grandma’s house, but even that limited exposure (maybe 2-4 hours of TV at Granny’s per week) is enough! I was surprised to find out that the 6 year old knew the names of toys in the Target catalogue that came in the mail.

    So again, it’s time to remind them that things look way cooler than they are, that they are made of cheap plastic, made in China (most often), and break easily. I think that reducing exposure to advertising is great, but it is impossible to never see any of it. So that’s where the media literacy stuff comes in. And I really think that most kids will get it! Or at least they will by the time they are old enough to really want Stuff, if that makes sense.
    .-= hippygirl´s last blog post …Winter Cakes =-.

    • says

      Great point about teaching kids what commercials really are. We taught my 5-yr-old about this, and when she does see a commercial for something, she asks, “Mommy, are they just trying to get us to buy that?” Of course the answer is always “yes.” :)

      Of course, she’s still vulnerable to advertising being so young (heck, even I am sometimes), but I want her to be able to recognize that feeling of “being sold” on something, and know that just because you feel “sold” doesn’t mean it’s a wise decision. Learning that has helped me in untold ways in life, so I hope to pass that on early to my kids if I can.
      .-= Elizabeth @ The Nourished Life´s last blog post …My Version of Easy Homemade Raw Milk Yogurt =-.

      • says

        I know what you mean about feeling “sold.” And I think that most kids don’t like the idea of being tricked either, so teaching them about advertising is a great way to try to block the effects. But I think that limiting exposure is great, too, because sometimes it can just be overwhelming!
        .-= hippygirl´s last blog post …Winter Cakes =-.

  6. says

    Goodness, the “food” in that photo is both hideous and representative of what you’re talking about. I remember eating things like that as a kid. It makes me cringe now. I don’t buy any boxed cereal for my daughter and never have. She’s never had it, and doesn’t miss it. Ditto with soda. And I don’t go to fast food restaurants, so she doens’t either (she’s 3). We talk a lot around here about “treats”…something that it’s good to enjoy when you have one but which are not meals, are not something you eat every day, etc. I try to keep the treats as healthy as possible here at home, but that’s not always easy, particularly at family gatherings when other members of the family have different ideas of what constitutes “food” than I do. The difficulty in those situations is navigating between the health issue of trying to eat well and the social issue of family hospitality. It’s easier for me; I can politely decline certain things, and pick and choose my foods. It’s harder for my daughter, when her cousins are eating store-bought cookies or cake. I usually let her have some too for the sake of the social aspect, to a point; but at home we talk a lot about “treats”, what things are not foods and are yucky (anything in a plastic bag hanging from a rack in the grocery store), and “healthy foods”. Lately I’ve started talking to her about ingredients labels. She’s got a pretty good appetite overall and often asks for snacks of yogurt, fruit, nuts, cheese, oatmeal, etc., so I try not to worry about it too much. When I was her age I ingested a lot of Crisco, so I figure we we’re ahead of the game…
    .-= Shannon´s last blog post …I Am Edward =-.

    • says

      It sounds like you are ahead of the game for sure! :) I do find that my kids totally get that there are different foods at the grandparents than at home. They know this and I let them eat whatever they want at those houses and just try to be really good and healthy at home. I’ve seen my grandpa sneak a cookie to my nephew after his mom told him no more. So I figured I’d just avoid the battles and let them eat whatever. Now my grandparents are the ones making comments on how many treats the kids have at their house! haha.

      And I was more like you, Shannon, when I had just one kid. After having two I find it is harder to balance things and we definitely have fast food more than we did when it was just the one, but we still try to limit it and I definitely talk about how the food is not all that good or healthy for us and that the meat came from factory farmed animals and such. They get it, but not necessarily enough to make a better decision.

      So mostly we skip those things or I try to plan ahead and have good snacks in the car or something. I was thinking of writing a post about foods that work well in the car and are quick to make right before you go out the door… but haven’t written it yet! I did make some cheese quesadilla one day and that worked well. And the funny thing is that I would never make a hamburger at home and take it in the car, but that is what fast food places sell the most of. Isn’t that silly?
      .-= hippygirl´s last blog post …Winter Cakes =-.

      • Catherine says

        I know what you’re talking about Hippygirl! My husband and I always take sandwiches or other homemade foods in the car when we know we’re going to be away from home at lunch or dinner time. . We live way out in the country and DO have to work in town so of course we take our own homemade lunches to work. I work in an elementary school and do Kindergarten lunch duty. I cannot bear the awful stuff they feed the kids. The funny thing is, most of the kids don’t like it either. They throw away at least 90% of their school lunch. I find it hard to encourage them to eat even a little bit. The irony is, though, the kids don’t throw away their lunches because they know it’s not good food, they throw it away because they would rather have chips, cookies or other junk. My school sells “juice” drinks, bottled water, ice cream, baked goods (made in the school bakery) granola bars, “baked” chips and other junkfoods. When I make comments about that practice I’m told, “we have to sell this stuff to “keep out of the red.”
        There you go! It ALWAYS boils down to MONEY! No matter what, money is always the bottom line, even when it comes to children. I despair. Have you ever had the opportunity to view online an Italian school lunch menu? It’s wonderful! Full of fresh vegetables and interesting main courses. . I have seen little Italian toddlers eating eggplant, zucchini and other “exotic” vegetables and relishing it. I wonder if Italian children are subjected to the same awful food advertising that American kids are. At the very least, they are educated about food by their families and their schools.
        It’s us, the dummy Americans who have lost the ability to grow or choose (if we can find a safe place to buy it) and cook decent food for our kids. (of course I know not all of us are that way) It’s enough to make me move from the US to somewhere where food is still real! I don’t even like to go to the local supermarket chain anymore. I feel very distrustful of almost all the food I see there. I NEVER buy meat there anymore and try to avoid packaged and prepared “foods.” Lucky for us we have wild game and our own chickens. Now…I guess I’ll get down from the soapbox.

  7. says

    – TV
    – Pop culture magazines
    – Public School (homeschool instead)

    Then teach your kids how advertisers manipulate people. Highlight the techniques when observed so that they understand it from a young age. Teach them to think critically.

    Worked for us and our kids.

  8. says

    Excellent meaty and thought-provoking posts, Kristen. I’m right there with you. I believe marketing to children is a dirty-rotten game. “Their” goal is to coddle and nurse little consumers into life-long devotees. It is sick. Even as an adult who HATES McDonalds food (and what they represent), I sometimes get tricked via childhood nostalgia into thinking it might be tasty. Thankfully, it’s been years since I’ve let myself get duped. The force of sentimental nostalgia in marketing = tsunami.

    As a slight, but inter-related tangent, I have honestly felt like I am in a personal battle against sugar. It is everywhere we go. EVERYWHERE. And people had it out with pleasure and gusto, enjoying being givers of a “treat”. Can I always be the nasty hag denying them? (The adults, not my children.) It gets tiresome. I usually throw the junk out or let them have miniscule portions. My other defense? Instead of being the Wicked Sugar Nazi, I am working towards making luscious nutrient-dense desserts at home so they know the real thing when they taste it. Custard, Coconutty-Almondy-Chocolate-y JOY, egg nog, baked apples, etc.

    I had a recent moment of glory in the battle against sugar and processed junk:

    — My 4 year old tried a Kraft Singles processed “cheese” slice at a newsletter folding event the other week. I cringed when he said he wanted it, but didn’t make a scene. He took one bite and said, “Yuck, I don’t like this!” and didn’t eat any of it.


    Thanks for shouting it out on this blog. Your writing is extremely concise and pointed, perfect for lambasting the competition out of the water and illuminating what needs to be understood. Atta girl.
    .-= a. borealis´s last blog post …Getting over the fear of fever =-.

  9. says

    Hippygirl – our main car foods are fruit – bananas, grapes, apples. Though I have also served her bacon, granola with nuts and raisens… I’m totally with you on the extended family thing. I figure as infrequently as we go there, maybe 6 to 8 times a year, that the family relationship is more important than a day of less than optimal food.

    a.borealis, I totally understand about being the “sugar nazi”! I once scared all my inlaws when I saw my brother in law pouring a soda for my daughter (she’s never had any). I jumped up and said absolutely not, no sodas, ever. They all thought I was nuts. He was only doing it because he was pouring a soda for HIS 3 year old daughter. Sodas is where I draw the line with doing as others do while in thier homes. And I have had that same moment of junk food rejection satisfaction that you describe with my kid, then 2.5, who asked me to unwrap a Reeses Peanut Butter cup for her at a birthday party. She took one bite, spit it out, made a face and handed it back to me. It was awesome. Same person’s party, a year later, the host’s mother insisted on bagging up candy from the pinata for my daughter. She didn’t want her feel left out, I’m sure, because all the kids scrambled for the candy, while my daughter walked off, completely disinterested. She got herself a single lollipop and was perfectly happy. I tried to politely decline the bag of candy, and the woman looked at me like I was a “sugar nazi” and a few minutes later came over and handed me a bag of candy anyway. I thanked her and tucked it in our bag. When I got home I threw it away. We take my daughter trick or treating, but apart from the actual night, when she enjoys lollipops, most everything eventually gets thrown away.
    .-= Shannon´s last blog post …Snow =-.

  10. says

    Hi Kristen,

    I’ve recently read a great book (‘Don’t tell them it’s healthy’ by Karen Fischer) about food marketing to children- however the book teaches you to market healthy food to children using the same kind of techniques marketing advertisers use (and many other ways) that really work. I think you’d really enjoy the book. I don’t have kids, but I do have nephews so I’m gonna try these methods out and see what happens.

    You can read the 1st chapter of the book on the authors website (

    And just you know I am in no way affiliated with the book or any of the authors products, just thought you may like to have a good read:)

    .-= Michelle (Health Food Lover)´s last blog post …Elderberry & Blueberry Jam on Homemade Essene Bread =-.

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