How Food Marketing Can Help Kids Want What’s Good For Them

Aug 11, 2015, 2:45 PM, Posted by Victoria Brown

If we want to ensure that all children are able to grow up at a healthy weight, companies can play a role by continuing to reduce marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages and increase promotion of healthy choices.

A student drinking from a carton of milk.

When it comes to helping Americans eat healthier, the conversation often focuses on price and access. But, there’s a third, equally consequential, condition: desire. Preference is shaped by myriad factors and the effects of marketing and advertising are of paramount importance. Food and beverage companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars to market their products, and their investments produce results: adults and kids are swayed by marketing.

A new report from the UConn Rudd Center for Food, Policy & Obesity reveals that a majority of the largest food and beverage companies are spending a disproportionate amount of money advertising their nutritionally poor products to Black and Hispanic consumers, especially youth. While food marketing is not inherently bad—it appears Sesame Street characters could be great “salespuppets” for fruits and veggies—it becomes a problem when it features unhealthy products known to contribute to obesity and other poor health outcomes. And, with rates of overweight/obesity higher among Black and Hispanic kids and teens, this type of business approach is especially harmful.

Fast-food and other restaurants—many of which are known to promote products high in calories, fat, and/or sodium like French fries and chicken nuggets—represented almost 40 percent of food-related advertising spending on Spanish-language and Black-targeted TV networks. Other primarily unhealthy categories of foods/beverages, especially candy and snack items, dedicate a high proportion of their advertising budgets to Spanish-language and/or Black-targeted TV.

Conversely, advertising spending for more nutritious items, like healthier dairy products, juice and water, and fruit and vegetable brands, on Spanish-language and Black-targeted TV was less than the spending for these same items on all TV in total.

Over the years, a multitude of food and beverage companies have overhauled some of their most deep-rooted business practices to help kids and their families make healthier choices. And, they’re finding that these changes can benefit their bottom line, too.

In an effort to specifically reform their marketing practices, a number of these companies, many of which were analyzed in Rudd’s report, belong to a self-regulated program and they’re making good on their pledges to improve the ways they market to young kids.

However, more work can and must be done. While the national childhood obesity rate has leveled off and some places around the country are starting to see declines, racial and ethnic disparities persist. We all have a role to play—including industry leaders—in making progress more equitable.

The report offers recommendations on ways companies can improve their overall marketing practices, which would greatly benefit Black and Hispanic youth. Building on the efforts that are already underway, a couple of recommendations include expanding the products and types of marketing covered by the self-regulatory program and the companies’ commitment to increase the sale and availability of healthy products.  

If we want to ensure that all children—no matter who they are—are able to grow up at a healthy weight, companies need to continue reducing their highly influential marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages and increase promotion of their healthiest items. And, those populations adversely affected by the childhood obesity epidemic should be prioritized at the forefront of these changes.  

This way, we’ll be more likely to desire what’s actually good for us, and not just what’s put in front of us.

Victoria Brown, is a senior program officer, working to engage business around health for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Read her full bio.