Question of the Week
August 30, 2004


"[O]ur country has allowed junk-food marketers - and not just fast-food companies, but sugary cereals and high-in-calorie chips - to target kids. 'They do it on Saturday morning television. They have vending machines in schools. Practically every brand-name product has a Web site and kids-oriented products have Web sites and games and other things to entice kids and get kids to want those products.... Jacobson says, 'Twenty-five years ago, the government tried to get junk food advertising off of children's television, but they were stopped by the toy industry, the food industry, the broadcasting industry and the advertising industry. It's time to take another crack at that.'"
CBS News

One might expect the food industry to target those they think will be more easily convinced to buy their products; that's where the advertising industry comes in. They use the broadcasting industry, and show commercials during shows aimed at children and teens. It all sounds like good marketing. So what's wrong? What are people upset about?

"Food marketing aimed at kids undermines parental authority and helps fuel the epidemic of childhood obesity, according to a report issued today by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The volume and variety of marketing techniques has exploded, the group says, as food marketers seek new ways of bypassing parents and directly influencing kids‚ food choices. Regrettably, most of the foods marketed directly to children are high in calories and low in nutrition, the group says. 'Parents are fighting a losing battle against food manufacturers and fast-food restaurants, which use aggressive and sophisticated techniques to get into children's heads and prompt them to pester their parents to purchase the company's products,' said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at CSPI and the report's author."

Children "pester their parents to purchase the company's products." Teens and young adults just go buy the products themselves. While a lot of marketing is aimed at teens; much of the marketing is aimed at kids--even toddlers--with the goal of creating product loyalty in teens and into adulthood.

While advertisers are being accused of undermining parental authority, it is often parents, friends, and family that are responsible bringing the ads into the home where the children have access to them every day. Here is where the toy industry plays its part.

"McDonald's Barbie has the doll dressed up as a McDonald's clerk, feeding French fries, burgers, and Sprite to kid-sister Kelly in a restaurant playset. 'Unless McDonald's is paying you for ad space in the playroom, leave this toy at the store,' Wootan said. Same goes, she says for other junk-food ads disguised as toys, like Play Doh's Lunchables kit, where kids are encouraged to assemble Play Doh versions of Oscar Mayer's notoriously fatty and salty lunch box items. The Oreo Adventure game on Kraft Foods‚ web site is one of many corporate 'advergames'. In this video game, children's 'health' is reset to '100 percent' when kids acquire golden cookie jars on a journey to a Temple of the Golden Oreo. The Oreo Matchin' Middles shape-matching game, produced with Fisher Price, turns playtime into a chance for companies to cultivate brand loyalty and sell junk food."

Parents can say no to the toys. Parents can teach their children proper nutrition. Parents can choose not to give in when children ask repeatedly for junk-food and junk-food related merchandise they have seen advertised. Parents can even teach their children to look at ads and see them for what they are. Parents can do everything right at home--but what about at school?

"WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Krispy Kreme has offered to reward students with a doughnut for every A on their report card -- up to six per grading period -- sparking concern among school officials trying to fight childhood obesity. Under one promotion, Krispy Kreme stores will give Palm Beach County students in kindergarten through sixth grade a free doughnut for every A on their report card. Another program has students decorate posters of doughnuts with 'success sprinkles' when children meet goals. The posters can be turned in for a class set of doughnuts...."

While someone at Krispy Kreme is getting a bonus for being a marketing genius, parents and those in the health care industry are cringing at the thought of food (and doughnuts at that) being offered as a reward.

"Meanwhile, 50 schools in Palm Beach and Broward counties won a grant to begin a $1.4 million program to promote healthier lifestyles with nutrition and exercise programs. The district is also offering healthier school lunch menus."

One could call this a mixed message.

The message from the CDC, on the other hand, is quite clear.

"The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that obesity rates for Americans rose a staggering 57% between 1991 and 1999, triggering a 6 percent increase in the incidence of diabetes. What is particularly alarming about these statistics is the growing number of children who are overweight -- 5.3 million, or 12.5 percent, of Americans between 6 and 17 -- and the frightening health implications behind these numbers. Obesity in childhood can lead to the development of a host of medical problems, including atherosclerosis, hypertension, respiratory infections, and sleep apnea."

While the food-related toys and the Krispy Kreme promotion are aimed at tweens and younger children, teens are not immune. Fast food chains are selling to students in some high school cafeterias. Soft drink companies are getting contracts with school districts and placing vending machines on campuses across the country.

Questions of the Week:
How do you think toys (featuring brand name food items), and promotions (like the one offered by Krispy Kreme) affect the choices young children and tweens make about food? Do you think that ads, toys, and promotions featuring unhealthy foods send a confusing message to children who are being taught the importance of healthy eating? What influence did these sorts of marketing techniques have on your decision making when you were younger? What influence do they have now? How could you use these same techniques to market healthy foods to younger children? What techniques could you use to target your peers?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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