Targeted food marketing to children works. That’s why food and beverage companies spend $1.8 billion each year marketing food brands and products to children as young as 2 years old. Unfortunately, that investment is not being used to sell healthful foods like fruits and vegetables to our youngest community members. Fully 84 percent of the ads viewed by children promote foods that are high in saturated fat, trans fats, sugars, or sodium, according to a 2013 study.
The food industry targets children with marketing in a variety of settings including television, the Internet, online games, sports/concert sponsorships, through kids’ apps, on children’s clothing, via branded toys, and through fast food toy giveaways. Children are also exposed to targeted food marketing in their schools, on food packaging, in stores, and in places where kids congregate such as parks, playgrounds, and recreation centers.
Food companies use cartoon characters like SpongeBob SquarePants and Spiderman in their marketing to appeal to children, and often select spokespersons that children idolize, such as Beyoncé and Selena Gomez.
Unhealthy foods and food brands that are relentlessly marketed to children can influence their food preferences for a lifetime. The marketing can trigger family tension when children nag parents to purchase unhealthy foods they’ve seen advertised. When food companies target kids, it undermines parents’ efforts to teach their children good eating habits and encourages poor nutrition, which can lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases.
In 2006, food and beverage companies formed the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, “to shift the mix of advertising primarily directed to children (‘child-directed advertising’) to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles.” The CFBAI is a voluntary self-regulation program comprising 18 large food and beverage companies and has created and implemented its own nutrition criteria for what can and can’t be marketed to children. This initiative has resulted in modest improvements. However, two thirds of food companies, restaurants, and media companies have no policy to limit junk food marketing to kids. And, very few retailers have implemented food-marketing policies to protect children.
A July, 2016 report found that 2015 marked the first year since CFBAI implementation that children viewed fewer food and beverage TV ads than they viewed in 2007. “However,” the report said, “this reduction was small (just 3%). … Fast food restaurants remained the most advertised category, and youth exposure to ads for carbonated beverages and candy has increased by more than 50% compared to 2007. … These findings may partially reflect declines in TV viewing overall. Furthermore, youth are likely viewing additional ads on mobile platforms such as cell phones and tablets. Despite food industry promises, TV food advertising to youth continues to encourage the consumption of foods and beverages high in calories, fat, and sugar.”
In 2009, Congress directed the Interagency Working Group (IWG), comprising the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop model, voluntary recommendations for food marketing to children. Two years later, the IWG proposed voluntary, science-based nutrition standards that are much stronger than the nutrition standards set by the CFBAI. The food and beverage industry intensively lobbied Congress in opposition to the proposed IWG standards and successfully derailed the model, voluntary program.
The proposed standards included two principles:
Principle A—Foods marketed to children should provide a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet and should contain contributions from the following food groups: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk products, fish, extra lean meat or poultry, eggs, nuts and seeds, or beans.
Principle B—Foods marketed to children should be formulated to minimize the content of nutrients that could have a negative impact on health or weight. With the exception of nutrients naturally occurring in food contributions under Principle A, foods marketed to children should contain limited amounts of saturated fat, trans fats, sugar, and sodium.
Other policies that would reduce food and beverage marketing to children include:
- Prohibiting the sale of low-nutrition foods and beverages in zoos, children’s museums, boys and girls clubs, athletic venues, and other settings frequented by children.
- Restricting the marketing of unhealthy foods to children in schools, food and convenience stores, fast food and other restaurants.
- Set nutrition standards for restaurant kids’ meals.
- Remove sugary drinks from kids’ meals.
- Set nutrition standards for restaurant kids’ meals sold with toys.
- Require store checkout areas to be free of candy, sugary drinks, and other low-nutrition foods.
The Food Marketing Workgroup provides policy ideas and updates on campaigns against food marketing to children, and other information.
The UConn Rudd Center for Food and Obesity tracks industry advertising to kids, provides policy ideas, research and tools, and other information.
View the 2011, science-based, Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children report, Preliminary Proposed Nutrition Principles to Guide Industry Self-Regulatory Efforts.
Actions taken by other countries on food marketing to children
While efforts have stalled in the United States to implement science-based federal standards for marketing to children, other countries have proposed or enacted legislation to restrict it, including:
- Banning fast food marketing aimed at children under the age of 13 in print and electronic media.
- Restricting advertising that targets children under the age of 14 for foods considered high in calories, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium.
- Banning the use of cartoons or toys when marketing unhealthy food.
- Requiring educational labeling on advertisements for products containing added fats, sweeteners, or sodium, including a message explaining dietary principles.