Children can be easily swayed and are quick to want — or demand — products that they see in commercials, which is why advertisers spend more than $12 billion per year to reach the youth market. According to statistics from Nielsen, children see more than 16,000 commercials each year.
Many analysts believe advertising contributes to a host of negative traits, ranging from childhood obesity to poor impulse control to precocious sexuality. Meanwhile, proponents of marketing to children point out that it can be a strong tool to teach children critical analysis.
It’s a highly contested debate, which is especially impassioned when it comes to food products.
“There’s no moral, ethical, or social justification for marketing any product to children,” said Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. “Advertising healthier foods to children is problematic. We want children to develop a healthy relationship to nutrition and to the foods that they consume. Advertising trains kids to choose foods based on celebrity, not based on what’s on the package.”
In the past, food companies had a lot more freedom to advertise to kids. They used beloved TV show characters on product packaging, ran ads during children’s shows and placed products on the shelf at a child’s eye level. Today, however, there are restrictions regarding how food brands market their products to children.
Concerns over advertising targeting children have been around longer than TV. In 1874, the British Parliament passed a law intended to protect children from the efforts of merchants to induce them to buy products and assume debt.
Today, the Better Business Bureau’s Children’s Advertising Review Unit issues guidelines that play a major role in ensuring responsible advertising to children under 12 in the U.S.
Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission polices advertising directly marketed to children or to their parents, ensuring they comply with truth-in-advertising standards.
A challenging endeavor
Christina Papale, vice president of strategy and director of innovation for CBX, said elementary-school-aged kids are concrete real-time thinkers. As soon as they are socialized, they are exposed to forms of marketing -- perhaps not through companies, but through friends, experiences and media.
“The greatest success, particularly with some of the media restrictions on traditional advertising to kids, is at point of sale and through word of mouth,” she told Food Dive in an email. “We are in the throes right now of a fidget spinner phenomenon, and it’s traveled via word of mouth — or kids witnessing other kids. If kids see it live and in person, or in action, it’s all over.”
Parents can’t shut off in-store point of sale marketing, like they can for social media and television. Packages featuring recognizable characters, bright colors and eye-catching logos are on store shelves at kid level -- and noticed by their target demographic.
“Anything directly tangible, right in front of the kid, means more work for the gatekeeper. Our culture is particularly sensitive and aware of selling directly to our children, and a movement around marketing morality has taken hold.”
Vice president of strategy and director of innovation, CBX
“Anything directly tangible, right in front of the kid, means more work for the gatekeeper,” Papale said. “Our culture is particularly sensitive and aware of selling directly to our children, and a movement around marketing morality has taken hold.”
Children quickly realize the power of their influence with their parents. Because parents can’t restrict some messages getting to their children, parental approval of marketing depends on their ability to say “no” or “yes.”
Kevin Sherman, president of True Drinks, the makers of AquaBall, said he has seen an increase in parents becoming strong label readers. This, he said, plays into the role of designing packaging that attracts kids’ attention.
“In our case, AquaBall was specifically designed to fit the hands of children, fit into cup holders, fit into stroller cup holders and a mouth opening designed for less spilling,” he said. “TV spots are effective in letting parents know that a product like this exists; however, we do not have the budget of the ‘bigs’ and therefore need to heavily rely on social media and the simple messaging of parents recommending AquaBall to other parents. The most effective marketing is a personal recommendation from a trusted friend.”
No agreement on kid-targeted advertising
In 2007, Mars Chocolate became the first food company to announce a global commitment to stop advertising food, snack and confectionery products to children.
“One of the most important aspects of the Mars Marketing Code is our commitment to not advertise to children younger than 12 years of age,” Mars Food North America Vice President of Corporate Affairs Caroline Sherman told Food Dive. “We love the fact that consumers of all ages enjoy our diverse brands, but we have a responsibility to market our products ethically. We provide the information to parents and guardians to empower them to make the decisions that are best for their families.”
With the expansion of digital channels and programming, the company has increased its efforts to ensure its ads are not on websites or TV programs primarily directed at kids.
“If more than a quarter of an audience is likely to be under 12, we don’t buy advertising time,” Sherman said. “And if a website is aimed at children younger than 13 years old, we do not advertise there. Additionally, we do not use children 12 years or younger as spokespeople for our brands.”
Rob Litt, a spokesperson for General Mills, told Food Dive that the company takes marketing to children very seriously.
“General Mills will take care to ensure that our marketing messages are inclusive and respectful,” he told Food Dive. “We will not produce advertising that is vulgar, insulting, or demeaning, or that undermines the role of parents and family or respect for community authorities. When placing advertising for our brands, General Mills will take steps to ensure that the advertising will air only on programming General Mills deems suitable, audience-appropriate and relevant for the brand.”
“We love the fact that consumers of all ages enjoy our diverse brands, but we have a responsibility to market our products ethically. We provide the information to parents and guardians to empower them to make the decisions that are best for their families.”
Vice president of corporate affairs, Mars Food North America
As part of its commitment, the company has established a Responsible Marketing Council. It holds annual advisory reviews of all new product development plans, as well as brand marketing plans for products that will be marketed to children.
Regardless of the nutritional profile of the product, General Mills will not directly advertise food or beverage products in schools with students pre-K through 12th grade. It also does not run any product advertising on programming or media primarily for children under 6.
Despite the tone set by General Mills and Mars, there are manufacturers that do advertise to children. Kind spokesman Drew Nannis said the snack bar company crafts its products with wholesome ingredients that appeal to both adults and kids. The company makes several products that are more kid-friendly, including Pressed by Kind, which is made solely of fruit and vegetables.
Nannis said the company feels marketing these items to children is acceptable ¡ but it doesn’t go out on a limb trying to get kids to give them a try.
“We believe as long as we focus on creating products parents can feel good about eating themselves or sharing with their kids, we’re staying true to Kind’s mission to do the kind thing for your body, your taste buds and your world,” he told Food Dive.