Hidden advertising messages and your children

How to escape the never-ending stream of advertising directed toward your kids

SpongeBob Squarepants, Hello Kitty, Marvel’s Superheroes! These characters may be some of your child’s favorites from movies, toys, and TV shows. As parents, we know that our kids come to think of these endearing images as their “friends.” But these characters are often being used for another purpose — they are part of a pervasive marketing strategy to get your child to consume unhealthy foods and beverages.

Food marketing to children is big business. Food companies spend nearly $2 billion every year advertising products directly to children and teens. The biggest spenders are fast food, breakfast cereal and carbonated beverage industries. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of child-targeted food products are high in sugar, salt and fat. Because of this, many of us in public health consider exposure to food marketing a critical risk factor contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic.

Most parents have probably experienced the allure of child-targeted food marketing first-hand. Just think about grocery shopping with your child. When my children were preschool-age I approached the cereal aisle with a sense of dread. I felt completely outnumbered by the numerous entertaining and attractive cartoon and brand characters on vibrant packaging enticing my kids to eat high-sugar cereals. In comparison, the low-sugar cereal box in my hands looked boring and unappealing. Even though I knew I was making the right choice for my kids, it was hard for them to understand.

Children also see images of their favorite characters when they watch kid’s TV channels. Next time your child is watching TV, pay attention to the food commercials directed to kids. Do the commercials look like they are advertising food, or toys? Kids are increasingly exposed to these images online, too -- in apps, banner advertisements, social media and advergames (i.e., video games on a food product’s website). It seems nearly impossible to shield your child from the hundreds of visually enticing impressions for unhealthy products that appear in ads each week.

There are, however, several strategies parents can use to help reduce children’s exposure to child-targeted food marketing:

  • Limit your child’s TV watching to less than 1 hour per day, and do not put a TV in your child’s bedroom.
  • Only permit your child to watch kids’ channels that do not contain food advertising, such as PBS.
  • Watch TV with your child. If possible, pre-record your child’s favorite shows and fast forward through the commercials. Alternatively, have your child watch programming using one of the streaming options that does not contain ads. Netflix is a good example.
  • Always supervise your child while online. Download educational apps for your child to play, instead of advergames. If possible, skip the advertisements that play right before videos on YouTube.
  • Don’t be fooled into buying a product for your child because the packaging is colorful and contains familiar characters. These foods are often nutritionally poor choices. Instead, use the food label on the side of the box to choose the healthiest option.
  • Be prepared for “pester power.” It is hard for children to resist the pictures on cereal and snack boxes in the stores. Before you get to the store, talk to your child about what you are going to buy. Agree on a healthy choice beforehand so that you and your child are not influenced by in-store marketing.
  • Finally, teach children about food marketing early on, in an age-appropriate way, and empower them to help you make healthy choices. Here’s one strategy that has worked with my children. When a child-targeted food commercial is on TV, we play a game called “Guess the Product?” My kids love being the “detective” who figures out what the ad is actually selling (food, not toys). Yours will, too!

Meghan R. Longacre, PhD, is an assistant professor of pediatrics at The Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.

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