In recent years, the food and beverage industry has viewed children and adolescents as a major market force. As a result, children and adolescents are targeted aggressively by food advertisers, and are exposed to a growing and unprecedented amount of advertising, marketing, and commercialism through a wide range of channels. The principal goal of food advertising and marketing aimed at children is to influence brand awareness, brand preference, brand loyalty, and food purchases among youth.
A wide range of food advertising techniques and channels are used to reach children and adolescents to foster brand awareness to encourage product sales. [18
] Marketing channels include television advertising, in-school marketing, product placements, kids clubs, the Internet, toys and products with brand logos, and youth-targeted promotions. The strong similarities between the marketing and promotional activities used by food companies to advertise unhealthy foods to children and those used by the tobacco industry to market cigarettes to children are striking. [82
] For example, at one time tobacco companies were providing schools with free sports programs, scoreboards, and book covers featuring school logos on the front and cigarette ads on the back. [82
] Young children were targeted with the sale of candy and bubble gum in packages that resembled those of actual cigarette brands. [82
] Ads for cigarette brands popular with youth were selectively placed in magazines with large youth readerships. Promotional materials (caps, sports bags, lighters with cigarette brand logos), sweepstakes, and premiums were commonly used. The "Marlboro Man," with his image of independence and autonomy, struck a responsive chord among adolescent males. Studies of the use of the cartoon character Joe Camel to promote Camel cigarettes showed that 30% of 3-year olds and over 80% of 6-year olds could make the association between Joe Camel and a pack of cigarettes. [83
] In the three years after the introduction of the cartoon camel character, preference for Camel cigarettes increased from 0.5 to 32% among adolescent smokers. [84
Collectively, the advertising techniques and promotional campaigns targeting youth were highly successful in encouraging underage smoking. [85
] A time-series study concluded that adolescents are three times as responsive to cigarette brand advertising as adults. [87
] Several cross-sectional and longitudinal studies have clearly and strongly shown that exposure and receptivity to tobacco advertising and promotional activities is related to adolescent tobacco use. [86
] Similar studies need to be conducted with food advertising and relationships to consumption of high fat, high sugar foods, and obesity.
Numerous studies have shown that foods heavily marketed to preschool and grade school children are predominantly high in sugar and fat, [36
] which is the antithesis of healthful eating recommendations for children. Experimental studies have consistently shown that children exposed to food advertising prefer and choose advertised food products more frequently than those not exposed to such ads. [37
] Purchase request studies with children under age 11 have also found strong associations between number of hours of television watched by children and number of children's requests to parents for those foods, as well as availability of those food items in the home. [37
] Of concern is that African American and Hispanic children watch more television compared to white children. [33
] Thus, they are exposed to more food ads. African American and Hispanic children also have a higher prevalence of obesity than white children. [13
] Several studies have documented associations between the number of hours of television watched and the prevalence of obesity among children. [37
] Research is needed to examine possible relationships between exposure to food advertising, eating behaviors and obesity.
Because marketing to children and adolescents has become so pervasive, many child advocates and media experts believe that such marketing constitutes an escalating public health problem. [73
] Children, especially young children, are more susceptible to the effects of marketing than adults. Numerous studies have documented that children under 8 years of age are developmentally unable to understand the intent of advertisements and accept advertising claims as factual. [22
] The intense marketing of high fat, high sugar foods to young children can be viewed as exploitation because they do not understand that commercials are designed to sell products and do not have the ability to comprehend or evaluate advertising. The purpose of advertising is to persuade, and young children have few defenses against such advertising. Older children and teens can be manipulated by the strong emotive messages in advertisements. [24
] It can be argued that children, especially young children, are a vulnerable group that should be protected from commercial influences that may adversely impact their health, and that as a society that values children, there should be greater social responsibility for their present and future health. Social and environmental structures can actively support and promote healthy food choices for children. [81
] Table provides examples of potential environmental strategies and policy recommendations for food advertising and marketing aimed at children and adolescents. There is a need for national discussion and dialogue on these issues.
Potential strategies and policy recommendations on food advertising and marketing aimed at children
The growing epidemic of childhood obesity has focused attention on the possible role that food and beverage advertising and marketing may play in influencing child and adolescent eating behaviors and body weight. More research is needed to examine whether food advertising is a causal factor for increased risk of obesity. Experimental and epidemiologic research, including longitudinal designs, is needed to study the effect of food advertising on children's food choices, eating behaviors and body weight. Studies need to include the various marketing channels used to reach youth, such as television, schools, and the Internet, as well as different age periods, such as early childhood, middle childhood and adolescence. This article focused on marketing practices and research conducted primarily in the US. However, a number of studies in other countries, such as Australia and the UK, have found that television advertising to children for high sugar and high fat foods is prevalent. [39
] Comparative international studies could help shed light on the prevalence and impact of food marketing and advertising to children.