by Marion Nestle
Apr 22 2011

Food marketing to kids goes viral

Several recent articles highlight concerns about food marketing to children.  Yesterday’s New York Times, for example, explained why obesity experts are increasingly concerned about advertising through new electronic media:

Like many marketers, General Mills and other food companies are rewriting the rules for reaching children in the Internet age. These companies, often selling sugar cereals and junk food, are using multimedia games, online quizzes and cellphone apps to build deep ties with young consumers. And children…are sharing their messages through e-mail and social networks, effectively acting as marketers.

…The sites can attract substantial audiences. and, sites from McDonald’s, received a total of 700,000 visitors in February, around half of whom were under 12, according to comScore, a market research firm. The firm says 549,000 people visited the Apple Jacks site from Kellogg’s, which offers games and promotes an iPhone application called “Race to the Bowl Rally.” General Mills’s Lucky Charms site, with virtual adventures starring Lucky the Leprechaun, had 227,000 visitors in February.

Advertising Age notes the use of cell phones, ipods, and ipads by younger and younger children:

Over half the parents in the survey say their children should be able to go online on their own by age 6, and by 5 should be able to play games on a cellphone or on a console or listen to a portable music player on their own.

And the Public Health Law Network explains takes up the question of parental responsibility vs. food industry responsibility.  It asks whether it is:

reasonable for food and beverage companies to spend hundreds of millions of dollars targeting children with marketing, mostly for obesogenic foods, placed literally everywhere and anywhere a child might eat, study, or play, and then demand that parents run interference against them?

Food companies think marketing to kids is plenty reasonable.

Here’s a situation in which some policy changes would be most helpful.  How about some restrictions on what food companies can do in order to make it easier for parents to manage what their kids eat?

Just a thought.  Happy weekend!

  • Daniel

    The value of marketing to kids is being marketed to the investors on Wall Street.

    The video is priceless.

    General Mills (NYSE-Listed GIS) visited the NYSE in honor of St. Patrick’s Day 2011.

    In honor of the occasion, Lucky the Leprechaun, the General Mills icon of its popular Lucky Charms® cereal, accompanied by General Mills Big G marketing executives, Joe Driscoll and Jill Kurzawa, rang The Opening Bell.

    And here’s Michele Simon’s take on the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign. Campaign is heavy on PR, lite on meaningful government actions

    She ends by saying: “Solving the complex problems of childhood obesity won’t be solved with cute slogans or deal-making with the likes of Wal-Mart. To win this battle, we need our political leaders to take on seriously the politics of marketing junk-food to our children.”

  • Daniel

    Read Joan Gussow’s 1980 article “Who Pays The Piper?” to learn about Congressional efforts to regulate marketing of sugary foods to kids in the 1970s, and the subsequent pushback from the Big Food, i.e. the “monied interests.”

  • Pingback: The Era of Ads: Food Marketing to Kids Goes Viral |

  • Pingback: The Era of Ads: Food Marketing to Kids Goes Viral |

  • Daniel K. Ithaca, NY

    Oh no…here we go again. The Food Police are in action.

    Companies have the right to sell and to advertise to young people at any cost–even if that cost is their health. Do we care that your kids are putting on a few, or many, extra pounds? We have BIGGER problems to deal with, like SHAREHOLDERS. How are we to make more and more profits every quarter, unless we get inside the heads and encourage people who are not legally able to decide for themselves, to decide for themselves what they would like to spend their parents money on? They”re developing life long eating and buying habits, we need to get them started! Kids will need to eat more more more. And it’s our right to convince them of what they need.

    We’re CORPORATIONS! It’s our RIGHT to market to anyone! It’s OUR RIGHT!

    Isn’t it?

  • Pingback: The Era of Ads: Food Marketing to Kids Goes Viral |

  • This makes me feel very sad. It doesn’t seem fair to market so aggressively to kids who don’t even understand what they’re really seeing. They get addicted before they know any better.

  • Pingback: The Era of Ads: Food Marketing to Kids Goes Viral –

  • Pingback: The Era of Ads: Food Marketing to Kids Goes Viral | How to Business()

  • Joe

    If you can’t beat em regulate em is the mantra of the public health establishment. To conclude that because parents just cannot get their kids to eat healthier there should be more government regulation is frightening on many levels.

    First is an obvious question that if parents who live in the same household with a child cannot get them to eat healthier then how is a bureaucrat making policy thousands of miles away going to do it?

    Second who gets to say what foods are healthy and which aren’t? I grew up in a typical American home eating “junk” foods but surprisingly have no health conditions to show for it. It is true that one man’s junk is anothers treasure. It is all opinion when it comes to what is healthy and what is not.

    Thirdly eating food is not static. It cannot be assumed that “junk foods” are the only things kids eat. If that were true on a mass scale there would be no market for “healthy foods” right. In terms of economics and the free market what is sold is what is in demand. People eat a wide variety if things which is again witnessed by what is available in the market.

    Aside from these points why can’t we just be left to choose for ourselves what we want to do with our own bodies. That is the mantra of pro choice correct?

  • Doc Mudd

    That “crap food” didn’t kill me either, Joe. I don’t recall ever attending a funeral of a little classmate killed from eating “Life” cereal, “Lucky Charms” cereal, “Crackerjacks”…or any other hideously advertised kid magnet edible crapola. Automobile accidents got a few of ’em, though. And drownings.

    What’s amusing to me is the undercurrent of irrational panic among these self-anointed “nutrition experts”. If some kid, somewhere, eats just one or two more sugary meals sold to his/her legal guardian by the despicable “food industry”, well, if that happens we’re all gonna die!

    Yep, we’re all gonna survive difficult childbirths, genetic disorders, infectious diseases, injuries of every sort and even cancer to be killed by obesity and diabetes caused by capitalism. Might as well just rubberstamp the death certificate forms for each of us right now with cause of death: “Advertising”

    If each of us and each of our kids would exclusively gnaw on wormy turnips grown in the neighbor’s garden patch we would live virtually forever…but, geez, who would want to live 100+ years like that?

  • Roxanne Rieske

    Joe…There’s always a few exceptions to the trend, and you, obviously, must be it. The FACTS are that more and more young adults are being diagnosed w/ Type II diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Those are hard, cold facts. Not opinions. Another fact: these conditions are brought on by sedentary lifestyles and poor dietary habits. You eat too much fat and sugar, and you’ll be fat. Science determines what are healthy food choices by studying the effects of various nutrients on the body. Not opinion.

    Didn’t you ever go through The Impact of Diet on Rats experiment in 4th grade? That’s a solid, scientific lesson for kids that they just can’t stuff whatever they want down their pieholes w/out consequence. Eating that double cheeseburger may not kill you today, tomorrow, next week, or next month, but repeated dosings of highly fatty, high sodium, and sugary food without the necessary physical activity and fiber intake to mitigate all that intake of calories and sodium will eventually wreck havoc on your body. There’s enough documented medical evidence to prove that true. End of story. No matter how much you pontificate that you ate all this stuff as a kid w/out consequence, I’m betting your mother never allowed you to eat fast food for 3 meals a day. The unfortunate reality of today is that way too many young adults live on junk and depend on fast food 3 meals a day without so much as seeing a fresh fruit or vegetable. That is a train ride to an early death.

    This is why marketing to kids is a bad idea: They do not possess the intellectual and mental maturity or the social skills to decipher and weed marketing and advertising messages. Until the human brain is fully formed and reaches adult capacity (between the ages of 18-21), kids and teenagers have pretty much no resistance to advertising. This is why we read news reports of teenagers robbing or shooting someone for that person’s brand-name sneakers. Also, in a world where parents depend on the television as a babysitter, kids are exposed to advertising ad-naseum. They can’t get away from it, which makes the use of advertising and marketing to young people borderline exploitation. Do companies really have the right to advertise to a population that does not have the ability to make good choices through mental reasoning? The ethical answer is no.

    As an adult, I don’t care what you eat or what you do, just as long as it doesn’t impact me. If you spend 20 years eating junk food and consequently develop diabetes and heart disease, don’t look to me as a taxpayer to foot your medical bills. Honestly, WHO would want to live that way? Being that sick SUCKS. It totally prevents you from living a productive, fun, and active life. Especially at retirement! Why would you put yourself through that?

  • Roxanne Rieske

    Doc Mudd..If you want to continue “arguing” your points here, you need to take a logics class. You’re riding so many slippery slopes you’re going to crash into a wall. You make absolutely no sense.

  • Mike

    “Aside from these points why can’t we just be left to choose for ourselves what we want to do with our own bodies. That is the mantra of pro choice correct?”

    Good question. You can’t choose for yourself because General Mills, Kellogs, Kraft Foods, Heinz, Hershey, Proctor and Gamble, Colgate Polmolive, Coca Cola and many more own the playing field. They don’t let you choose, but they let you think you have freedom to choose.

  • Joe

    Did you ever notice that most illness and most death occurs in old age? Since that is the case couldn’t the observation be made that as we age we get sick and we die which happens to everyone one the globe at some point. It happens no matter of dietand lifestyle.

    Secondly I am led to believe that the argument that our nations children are getting sicker sooner is not of the epidemic proportions that they say it is. I think this because when I visit my daughters elementary school I dont see a bunch of fat kids. Sure there are some bigger than others but that has always been the case. Sure some of those kids have diseases but it has always been the case that some kids are sick.

    Often it seems the government/public health alarmism whips everyone into a frenzy and robs their ability and or willingness to think objectively.

  • Roxanne Rieske


    Chronic illness doesn’t have to occur at any age if you take care of your body. Yes, you eventually die just because your heart will eventually give out, but you don’t need to be chronically sick the last 20-30 years of your life–that is a myth. The studied cases of people who live into their late 90s and beyond proves that a life lived healthfully will not only extend your life but will improve the quality of your later years tremendously. Current ongoing studies are showing that a low-calorie, nutrient dense whole foods diet largely devoid of processed food and animal products extends health by decades. It also reverses chronic health problems like Type II diabetes.

    Obesity is an epidemic in young people. Excuse me if I don’t take your offhand observations from your child’s school as scientific evidence. That proves nothing but a small trend in your local area. I could easily counter that by saying that I see obese teens everywhere I go during my day (which is true in my immediate local area). National studies done by the CDC tells us that nearly 20% of young people from 2-19 years of age are obese. Not just overweight–OBESE. That is alarming. From 1980-2008 that rate skyrocketed nearly 20%. Of this 20%, nearly 5% are developing Type II diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure in their twenties. That is not supposed to happen in ANY teenager. Yes, kids and teens get sick, but not from lifestyle diseases that strike middle-age adults.

    I’m thinking objectively and logically about this problem based on the empirical evidence that has been published and peer reviewed. Now tell me, how is that alarmist? Maybe you just don’t want to see the facts before your eyes.

  • Roxanne Rieske

    Jack LaLanne is the perfect example of a long life lived well and healthfully. He died this past January at the age of 96. Guess what he died of? Pneumonia. An acute illness that is often fatal in the extreme elderly. He NEVER suffered from chronic illness or muscle weakness-not even arthritis! He also exercised for 2 hours everyday up until he caught pneumonia. He was a life long advocate for whole foods living and shunned processed food and animal products except for fish and egg whites. In 1945, he blamed processed food, cigarettes, coffee, high-fat diets, and sedentary lifestyles on what he called “pooped-out-itis”–being chronically tired, stressed, and having “everyday” aches and pains. That was in 1945!

    If you have to die, dying of an acute illness is definitely preferable than being sick w/ diabetes or dying of long-term heart disease.

  • Lee Poe

    I just figured out who “Joe” and “Doc Mudd” really are! They’re those two old guys in the balcony on “The Muppet Show” who don’t like anything and fancy themselves funny. 🙂

  • Joe

    I like to think that I am a little more like Ms. Piggy (male though) who defies the pretzel logic of health elitists and lives life to the fullest even though she does not fit the homogenous standard of the nutrition left.

  • Mike

    Joe is the real hero. Coca Cola gives him the right to choose hundreds of different flavors of diabetes. Philip Morris give him the right to choose his own flavor and style of addiction. McDonald’s gives him the choice of breakfast, lunch or dinner full of sugar, starch and fat.

    He’s not burdened by any left wing elitist agenda to dupe him into the garden where the evils of fresh vegatables lurk. He isn’t fooled by the dangers of whole grains or the uncertainty of a home cooked meal.

    He’s the true hero, a corporate “David” in a sea of nutritional “Goliaths.”

  • Pete

    This thread is like arguing with FOX News viewers. Complete lunacy. I have to stop letting it get me so mad. Marketing to kids in general is wrong. Period. the evidence is overwhelming. I don’t care if its Apple Jacks or carrots, MARKETING TO CHILDREN is morally reprehensible.

  • Jessica

    I must agree that allowing marketing of nutritionally deficient products to children is wrong, but is it any more wrong than the relentless advertising for Pillow Pets or Happy Nappers? I think it is when it affects their current of future health. I have five children and they are exposed to this advertising every single time they turn around. I have been forced to limit their internet and television viewing time because of the huge amount of advertising they are exposed to, and I can see the results of it every time I allow them to watch tv or go on the internet(usually on weekends they are allowed a few hours). I don’t think it’s being a health elitist to demand that companies at least advertise nutritionally sound options at least as much as they advertise the less nutritionally sound products, and I’m not talking about 2 “made with whole grains” Fruit Loops commercials for every 1 Lucky Charms commercial either. I’m talking 1 “Eat more fruits and veggies” commercial for every Lucky Charms commercial they see. Perhaps if the same deviously designed marketing strategies are applied to healthful foods there will be less of a stigma amongst children about eating them. About 7 months ago I finally had enough of watching my fat kids get fatter and I started doing research including reading Mrs. Nestle’s book what to eat and it really opened my eyes about what my kids were really eating. Based on that book(among others) I started making better choices for my family and every family member over 8 lost a minimum of 20lbs(my 8 yr old was just becoming overweight and the youngest 2 eat until they’re full and stop). I lost almost 40lbs myself and my 11 year old daughter has lost almost 25 lbs. If you have 25 lbs to lose at 11 years old(and she still charts well above healthy weight level according to the doctor) then something needs to be done and I know she’s not the only one out there. TV restriction led to less resistance when I was introducing more vegetables into our diet. It turns out that even on tv kids are peer pressured into thinking vegetables are awful, just watch how some of those shows portray healthy eating. I saw one show where the child dismissively called his parent’s healthy eating a “health kick” as if it would end and everything would be back to normal, unhealthy eating when they got tired of it. Rediculous to me, a mother trying to teach 5 children to be healthy and live without being sick. The worst part, to me, is that I homeschool and still bear all of this pressure on them. I can’t even imagine how hard it is for parents to come home from work to see their publicly schooled child, realize they were fed pizza or chicken nuggets for lunch with chocolate or strawberry sugar flavored milk, and have been watching propaganda all day long that tells them veggies are gross and all the processed food is great, at the same time almost everyone in their sphere of influence is telling them veggies are gross. How could you possibly battle all of that? I don’t think any sane or reasonable person could consider that a fair battle. I know I don’t and I only have half of the battle.

  • Pingback: POM Wonderful Presents…Food Marketing: TidBit of the Day : Zomppa – International Food Magazine()