Call to Action Against Pervasive Marketing of Junk Food to Kids Made at Childhood Obesity Conference


At the 6th Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference held last week in San Diego, Lori Dorfman sounded a clear warning: Kids are exposed to more junk food marketing than ever, with a veritable onslaught of advertisements delivered online and through a variety of digital media platforms. Dorfman, who directs PHI’s Berkeley Media Studies Group (BMSG), called on public health advocates to better understand this changing marketing landscape – and take action to mitigate its effect on children.


Kids have long been recognized as powerful consumers. Not only do they have significant “pester power,” or ability to influence their parents’ purchasing habits, but brand loyalty established in childhood can last a lifetime. According to the Federal Trade Commission, the food and beverage industry spends almost $2 billion a year courting kids through “traditional” marketing such as TV commercials, promotions, sponsorships and kid-friendly packaging. An estimated $360 million of that is spent on toys given away with kids meals. Most marketing pushes high calorie, low nutrient foods. 


However, a new age of marketing has begun. At a packed panel discussion, Dorfman showed how kids are increasingly reached through website video games (see the Lucky Charms website), online branded channels that feature prominent celebrities (see Diddy TV,  Burger King’s collaboration with rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs), and videos that can quickly go viral (check out this example from Wendy’s). On Kraft’s website for Capri Sun children spend 49 minutes immersed in highly engaging activities, far more than the typical 30-second commercial, Dorfman noted.


Kids are even becoming the advertisers themselves. Company-sponsored contests promise big prizes for the best video submission promoting a product or brand. Videos are posted online and voted on by fans, thereby generating free, “user-generated” advertising. This also helps create loyal “brand ambassadors,” or kids who actively promote products to their peers (often over social networking sites like Facebook).


Even when kids are offline they are still within reach. Advertising can now be sent directly to kids’ cell phones. Location-based marketing even allows for the real-time delivery of coupons to phones as teenagers approach restaurants or food retailers. 


With the food environment saturated with unrelenting, highly personal and engaging ads, Dorfman asserted that it’s time to take action to curb this type of pervasive junk food marketing to kids. Here’s how you can get involved:


1. Make your voice heard:  Dorfman encouraged the audience to support proposed principles for marketing food to children released by the federal Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children. The working group, a first-of-its-kind collaboration amongst numerous federal agencies, proposes two main principles: (1) advertising and marketing should encourage children to choose foods that make “meaningful contributions to a healthful diet” and (2) saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars, and sodium in foods marketed to children should be limited.


These principles are voluntary, meaning that food and beverage companies will choose to adopt them or not. While some at the conference questioned the effectiveness of voluntary industry regulation, Dorfman stated that the principles are “fair and reasonable” and “a good starting point.”  In the face of attacks by industry, they need the public health community’s support.


The principles are open for public comment through July 14th. Submit your comments here and share your thoughts with the Dialogue4Health community by commenting on this blog post, or posting a blog of your own.


2. Know the beast (i.e., understand the problem): BMSG partnered with the Center for Digital Democracy to create, which follows trends in  interactive, online and digital marketing practices to children by the food and beverage industry. Visit the site to learn more about digital marketing, read reports from experts on the subject, and keep up-to-date on the latest ad campaigns.


3. Organize: BMSG toolkits and other resources have helped local communities counteract pervasive marketing of junk food to youth through local policy change.


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Comment by Anne Sunderland on July 18, 2011 at 11:09am
Cecil - thanks for your comment. I agree we need a multi-faceted strategy to address this problem. The BMSG resources linked to above not only provide guidance on counteracting junk food marketing but also on how communities can organize to increase healthy food options. One group showcased is the Good Neighbor Project in the Bayview Hunters Point community in San Francisco, which has successfully worked with corner stores to carry fresh produce while reducing alcohol and tobacco advertising. I think the examples you mention below are helpful as well. Feel free to post some links for further information to share with the D4H community. thanks!
Comment by Cecil Verley on July 8, 2011 at 6:38am

I don't see these three options as particularly useful.  What we need is a way of sponsoring events that help kids discover foods other than fast foods.  For example, imagine a mobile kitchen that allows a group of neighborhood kids to prepare a healthy & fun snacks (smoothies, apple granola bars, etc.) and have a sampling party.  What I've found is that kids in low income neighborhoods are not given a chance to eat anything other than fast/bad food. 

The next step is to bring food sampling (as in Costco) to low income neighborhoods.  You might have a fake product tasting event  (no product to sell in vast amounts) or mini "flash" food fairs featuring healthier food.  Advocates often forget that this is a battle to entice taste buds.  This is the strategy savvy parents use to introduce new foods to kids.  It works well.

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