Author Anna Lappé gave a great talk about junk food marketing to kids at last Saturday’s Tedx Manhattan: Changing the Way We Eat. You can view it here (see Session 2, starting at minute 13). This is an issue I have been following closely in my efforts to raise healthy children. It was one of the areas highlighted in the brilliant expose The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food which included the marketing of Kraft Lunchables.
This idea — that kids are in control — would become a key concept in the evolving marketing campaigns for the trays. In what would prove to be their greatest achievement of all, the Lunchables team would delve into adolescent psychology to discover that it wasn’t the food in the trays that excited the kids; it was the feeling of power it brought to their lives. As Bob Eckert, then the C.E.O. of Kraft, put it in 1999: “Lunchables aren’t about lunch. It’s about kids being able to put together what they want to eat, anytime, anywhere.”
The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and the Center for Science in the Public Interest provide resources to help parents understand the detrimental effects of advertising on children and recent media reports have helped spread the word about how to limit the negative impact.
Up to the age of 7 or 8, children are thought to be unable to understand the nature of advertising — developmentally, they can’t identify the underlying persuasive intent.
Older children may have a better understanding of commercials, but they are vulnerable in other ways…
What can parents do? With young children, the most important strategy is probably to reduce screen time, and the number of messages, and to keep track of what they’re seeing when they do watch TV.
I can and do turn off the TV at home but am undermined as a parent when my children’s school is used for marketing. When my youngest was in Kindergarten, I found out the Chick-fil-A cow would be coming to school to promote a PTA fundraiser. I did everything in my power to stop it, including contacting the PTA president and the principal, but to no avail. I went to school early to pick up my children so they could avoid exiting by the door with the fast food mascot. While I was waiting for school to let out, I told the Chick-fil-A marketing representative that I did not appreciate her being at school advertising to children.
When I got home, my five year old asked if we could go to Chick-fil-A for dinner. When I asked her why, she said the cow came to her classroom and passed out stickers. I explained to her why we avoid eating at fast food restaurants and why we would not be attending. Later that week, the principal and the District’s Elementary School Services Director asked to meet with me. They told me it was rude to treat a guest of the school that way and gave me a copy of the district’s civility policy. Keep in mind this was right around the time President Obama gave a speech to the nation’s children about working hard in school. Our district allowed parents to opt their children out of hearing that speech but I was not given the same choice for my children when it came to fast food marketing.
It turns out my children’s school was not the only one inviting fast food mascots to visit. Our local paper ran pictures of Ronald McDonald at a “leadership” assembly at another elementary school. I wonder how many students came home asking their parents to eat at McDonald’s that night? The fact that the school is named after civil rights icon Rosa Parks and McDonald’s specifically targets African-American youth with ads makes it all the more disturbing.
Another example happened this year when my 5th grader brought home a Junior Achievement lesson on Gatorade. Here are some of the quotes from the “lesson.”
“water wasn’t enough to keep his players healthy and capable of playing in the hot weather”
“when athletes lose fluid by sweating they also experience changes in body temperature and blood pressure. These changes can cause serious damage and even death”
“To replace what pours from the body during exercise, the research group created a drink that would get these fluids, salts and minerals back into the athletes’ bodies quickly”
“As the Florida football team began to win national games, the word spread that their secret weapon was Gatorade”
I spent the rest of the evening undoing my daughter’s takeaway message that “Gatorade is good for athletes” with the science from the British Medical Journal.
Given the high sugar content and the propensity to dental erosions children should be discouraged from using sports drinks
I’m doing my part to discourage it and would like to see schools reinforce health messages instead of marketing for the other side. Responsible companies should not use schools as a way to advertise to children.