Did you know that middle school children can’t tell the difference between the news and an advertisement?
Maybe that doesn’t surprise you, or maybe it does. Either way, it should make you consider the effect that advertising has on children. As a soon-to-be-mom (two months left before motherhood, OMGWTF), I have already thought about the impact of the “outside world” on the mind I will be raising. Like every parent, I want to raise a happy and healthy child into a thriving human being, one with good morals and health. My partner and I have plans: We don’t own a TV and likely never will (What do we need it for? Anything we want to watch is easily found online as it is, and with greater control), and we want to screen as much as possible before letting it in to our child’s world… an impossible task, I’m sure, but we have to try! Advertising has been on my mind a LOT because of this, advertising for material things and food and even modelling behaviour and social/gender roles- the psychology major in me is rolling in her grave!
Earlier in the summer, the CBC shared a story about the possibility of an industry-wide ban on advertising to children. What industry?
The food industry.
I’m sure you can imagine a few boxes of food at the grocery store with famous characters plastered all over their covers. Maybe a certain sponge from the bottom of the ocean, or a large yellow bird (Is that show still on?). Maybe they look cute, excited, or even pumped up and ready to take on the world, and are urging you on to do the same!
Well, they’re not urging you to do anything. They’re urging your children. Advertising agencies have been born and used at great length by major food companies to target one audience, and one audience alone: Children.
They’re smart for doing it. Imagine this: You see a parent and their child at the grocery store. The child picks something off the shelf, maybe a box of crispy rice squares (you know, the blue-boxed kind), but the parent puts them back, trying to avoid the sugar and fat. Immediately, a tantrum ensues. If you’re a parent, maybe you can sympathize. This parent likely works, probably doesn’t sleep very well at night (I hear this is the case when you have children), and has a lot on their plate, let alone the patience to deal with yet another tantrum in a public space in front of all to see and judge.
That blue-box company wants that tantrum to happen. Well, maybe they won’t admit it, but that tantrum has just increased the likelihood of that parent purchasing their product, and they didn’t have to aim it towards the adult at all. After all, we are full-grown adults that know better than to eat such sweet things. But if a child can’t tell that the advertisement right before the news wasn’t any different from the program, how can they be left to make their own healthy food decisions?
Food companies use tactics to draw in the eyes of the young and unknowing, and it undermines your efforts. How do they do it?
Well, that ocean-sponge character is one way. By having favourite characters all over a kind of food item, it creates something called Brand Loyalty. You can see it in the Pepsi vs. Coca Cola debate, but it’s prevalent beyond even those two nearly identical drinks. And you know what? It has nothing to do with taste. It’s been proven by several studies now that even in blind taste tests showing a taste preference for one product, the test subject will invariably continue to choose the lesser-tasting product, simply because of loyalty to it.
Also present in this example is another factor that food companies count on, and they call it the pestering factor. Kids will pester, nag and throw tantrums demanding their chosen food until they are given in to, and with various reasons, such as why that food is good for them, why they need it and want it. Food companies count on exhausted parents, hoping to avoid a scene and a fight with their child, to give in and buy the food, reinforcing the pattern.
But what’s worse than these two tactics? It has to do with what food advertising says about your cooking. That meal you spent hours on (OK, maybe not hours, but you put effort into it, especially if you’re trying to make healthy choices and prepare most of your meals at home), suddenly isn’t worth even a lick of interest by your child. They almost seem offended by it. After all, that’s grown-up food, it isn’t meant for kids! Kids need special food!
Here, food advertising towards children has a similarity to advertising for adults. Think about those granola bars you’ve seen before. They advertise being made with whole grains and full of energy. Well, they may be, but they’re almost all made of VERY sugary ingredients, and can pack more calories than you would expect. Unless you’re a hard-core body builder trying to gain mass, granola bars are essentially rectangular cookies. Nutrients may lay within, but many also hold 20+ grams of sugar. You don’t need it, and yet they’re advertised as healthy snacks that you should be having (because chances are, as is the case with most cereal sold in stores, those bars has been fortified with nutrients to make them seem healthier than they are). Well, advertising towards children has a similar edict. Children are small and growing and need specially formulated foods to help them!
Except it’s a total crock. After age two, when children are less likely to choke, they can eat the same thing their parents are eating at the table (albeit with a bit more moisture and supervision to make sure dry foods don’t cause choking still, but this is a skill mastered shortly). Children don’t need special fruit-snacks in fun packaging with their favourite characters telling them how to play a game while eating! Those fruit snacks, you know the ones, touting “Made with real fruit juice!” on the front of the box.
Look at the ingredients. Maybe you’ll see fruit juice in there, but you’ll also see a lot of sugar. They’re gummy bears, folks. Just gummy bears.
Also, fruit juice isn’t a safe bet for kids (or adults) either! Fruit are nature’s sweet treats. The juice of almost all fruit is sweet on it’s own, but as it’s just the juice, you lose the fibre that most fruit has to offer. Fibre, you may recall, is an important aspect of the diet when it comes to removing waste and slowing the glycemic response to sugar. The glycemic response needs to be slow to prevent your body from going overboard in storing all that sugar as fat on your body. It’s also important to keep an eye on as someone living with diabetes. So, eating whole fruits are a healthy source of energy and sweetness, but when they’re juiced, you lose one major aspect. Don’t get me wrong, natural fruit, just juiced, can be a nice treat (I’m a sucker for carrot juice myself- a vegetable, I know, but still sweet!). However, good luck finding plain fruit juice in most grocery stores. Just today, I went looking for watermelon juice. I found three brands, and all had three different kinds of sugar added to sweeten it further. SO unnecessary!
Okay, so what’s the big deal? Why am I spending this time going on about advertising?
Ads permeate nearly every aspect of our lives, and as proven by the ad-news similarities with children, children are incredibly susceptible to believing anything they hear and see. They are wonderful imitators, as it helps them learn. As a soon-to-be-parent, I don’t want my child to learn that they need fancy crackers and snacks to get their nutrition. With childhood obesity as high as it is, and various health complications and diseases becoming present earlier and earlier in life, the way food is presented to children should be of higher priority than it has been.
Fact: Childhood diabetes wasn’t a serious problem until the late 90’s, and has even increased 21% in children under 9 between 2001 and 2009!
Just like any other parent, I want to raise my child to be healthy and happy, and as advertising standards are now, I feel it will be one of the many uphill battles I will face as a new parent. The news in the CBC about reworking both the Canada Food Guide as well as targeted advertising is a good first step, and hopefully not a slow moving one. But that article is getting old now. What got me going was reading through Marion Nestle’s book What to Eat (2006) and her chapter on children’s food. She also discusses the topic in her other book Food Politics (2007). In What to Eat, she does give some advice for us parents on how to battle the advertising firms aimed at our kids:
- Don’t bring kids grocery shopping, but if you do, stay away from the middle aisles where all the processed and heavily advertised items are.
- If you have to have them with you, let them spend some money on something they want, but limit how much it is. For instance, give them $1 (You’ll keep it pretty limited there)
- Don’t buy anything with a cartoon or game involved with it.
- Don’t buy any food labeled as “fun”.
- Don’t buy food because they’re “vitamin enriched”, as these often are still laden with sugar and fat.
- Look at the sugar content
Some of these may seem a bit impossible (I’m pretty sure babe will be with me most of the time while grocery shopping), but it’s worth a shot! (Note: Marion Nestle is not related to Nestle food products. The name is pronounced the same way as you would say to “nestle into something comfortable”)
It’s also worth spending a bit of time at home with the kids in the kitchen or the garden. Show them how to grow food and prepare it, teach them the importance of whole foods and how wonderful they can be, and keep the emphasis on the enjoyment of preparing your own food and sharing that with loved ones instead of indulging in a pint of something with a cartoon on it.