Food is big business and kids are a primary target.
Marketing to children has changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years. Today, it is a seamless, sophisticated and often interactive. The line between ads and children’s entertainment has blurred, with marketing messages being inserted into the places that children play and learn.
This is not your grandmother’s advertising. Libraries, schools, movies, activity books, toys, cellphone ringtones, apps, cartoons, music videos, websites, video games, and children’s programming are saturated with marketing messages.
Marketing includes a wide array of tactics companies use to promote their products, such as:
- Attractive packaging
- Placement in strategic locations within stores and on shelves
- Free giveaways and coupons
- Celebrity endorsements
- Product placements in movies, cartoons or popular TV shows
- Sponsorship of kids programs, camps and sports teams
- Children’s activities, awards, recognition programs and logo placement in schools
- Widespread logo placement
- Text messaging
- Fun and interactive promotions
- Embedding products, brands or logos within games, video games or websites
- Online and offline games and books
- “Branded environments”
- TV advertisements
The World Health Organization provides a comprehensive list of marketing techniques, on pages 10 and 53 of their 2012 publication: “A framework for implementing the set of recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children”.
Kids are exposed to more commercial marketing than ever before:
- In 2010, the World Health Organization called on its member nations to reduce the impact of marketing of foods high in saturated fats, sugars or salt to children. This call to action has persevered, most recently in their 2023 Policies to protect children from the harmful impact of food marketing: WHO guideline
- Marketing of food and beverages to children in Canada is largely self-regulated by the same industries that profit from this practice. Research reveals that these voluntary measures are not working. As much as 90% of food and beverages advertised on TV and online are high in salt, saturated fat, sugar or calories. Read more in the report “The kids are not alright. How the food and beverage industry is marketing our children and youth to death.”
- Research led by Dr. Monique Potvin Kent reveals three-quarters of children in Canada are exposed to food marketing while using their favourite social media applications. The majority of these ads are for unhealthy food, that is ultra-processed foods and beverages that are high in saturated fat, salt or sugar. The study looked at the most popular social media apps that kids and teens (ages 7-16 years) access using smartphones and tablets: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube.
The extent of the problem:
Our children are bombarded with ads for foods and beverages all day, every day.
- In 2019, children (2-11) and teens (12-17) in Toronto viewed on average 2,200 and 1,600 food and beverage ads, respectively, on broadcast television alone. Children and teens are likely exposed to hundreds more food and beverage ads on social media.
- As much as 90% of food and beverages marketed to kids on TV and online are high in sugar, sodium, and saturated fats.
- Children and teens’ specialty TV channels in Canada broadcast as many as seven food and beverage ads per station per hour. The foods most heavily advertised on these channels are fast food, breakfast food (e.g., cereal, waffles), candy and chocolate and snacks (e.g., chips, crackers, granola bars).
- Canada had the highest level of TV advertising to kids of food that would not be permitted to be advertised to children using the WHO European Region nutrient profiling model (9.7 ads/hour/station) in a study of 22 countries.
- In Canadian grocery stores, there are more than 700 products marketed to kids using child-appealing content on their packaging. Over 90% of these food and beverages are deemed to contain too much sugar, sodium or saturated fats for products intended for kids.
- Unhealthy food and beverage marketing is also present in movie theatres, schools, and recreational centers, where children and teens are likely to be exposed on a regular basis.
This deluge of food and beverage advertising is driving poor dietary behaviors in Canada.
- Almost 60% of calories that kids and teens consume come from ultra-processed foods.
Food and beverage companies collect data and track behaviours online.
This enables companies to:
- Understand the power of various marketing techniques.
- Create highly detailed, personalized behavioural profiles that appeal to children.
- Deliver advertising that targets a child’s specific interests.
- Retarget viewers to increase exposure, awareness and action.
- Target individuals with personalized messages on their digital devices in real-time.
Children are uniquely vulnerable to marketing:
- Before age five, most children cannot distinguish ads from unbiased programming.
- Children under eight do not understand the intent of marketing messages and believe what they see.
- By age 10 to 12, children understand that ads are designed to sell products, but they are not always able to be critical of these ads.
Teens are also vulnerable:
- Despite increasing cognitive sophistication, teens are uniquely susceptible to marketing due to the hormonal effects of puberty on the developing brain. With the onset of puberty it appears that the brain reward centre becomes stronger than the rational decision-making region (prefrontal cortex).
- Teens are particularly susceptible to digital marketing (transmitted to personal computers, tablets and smartphones) since it blurs the lines between marketing and entertainment, arouses their emotions and can derail their ability to make good decisions.