Advertising for various products and companies can be seen almost everywhere. Candy, cereal, fast food, soda drinks and many other consumer goods are starting to target not only adults, but children as well. There have been a growing number of companies in the United States that have begun to advertise their products to a younger market. The growth of technology has made it easier for companies to target this younger audience. This boom of advertising can be linked to the growing issue of childhood obesity in the United States. Children’s nutrition and health is an ever-growing issue, and the blame often falls on the shoulders of companies who advertise towards children. In order to combat this issue, an understanding of why companies advertise towards children must be explained.
“Breakfast Cereal Industry Pledges to Self-Regulate Advertising to Youth” is an article written by Marlene B. Schwartz, Craig Ross, Jennifer L. Harris, David H. Jernigan, Michael Siegel, Joshua Ostroff and Kelly D. Brownell. They discuss the growing issue of products advertised to children.
“In 2007, the Council of Better Business Bureaus created the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative to improve the nutritional profile of products marketed to children in the United States” (Schwartz et al. 59). In the United States, advertising towards children is a known practice. However, the advertisements aren’t promoting healthy living and nutritious foods. The majority of marking is aimed to encourage children to buy and consume goods that are not advantageous to their health. These goods include cereal, fast food, and sugary soda drinks. Schwartz et. al write “children in the United States view nearly 5500 food advertisements per year and 98 percent of those food ads promote products high in fat, sugar, or sodium” (60). What kind of message is this sending? Children are encouraged to consume these products and their parents are buying them. These consumer goods may not have an immediate effect, but in the long term these products have hard, lasting effects on children.
In order to better understand the nutritional value of the food advertised towards children, we use the Nutrient Profiling model or NP for short. “The NP produces a single score for a food product based on seven factors: total calories, grams of saturated fat, grams of sugar, milligrams of sodium, grams of fiber, grams of protein, and the percent composition of unprocessed fruits, nuts, and vegetables” (Schwartz et al. 63). Under recent scrutiny many companies “have pledged that at least 50 per cent of advertising primarily directed to children will be for healthier foods or for promoting healthier lifestyles” (Schwartz et al. 68). Even with the ability to hold companies accountable for their advertising, many still advertise heavily towards children in hopes to raise sales and make a profit.
Amanda L. Willette discusses obesity in her article “Where Have All the Parents Gone?” Willette speaks about the issue of obesity in America, and the way the media has influenced the children it advertises towards.
Being a college student, I do not have much time to watch television. However, when watching, I see countless advertisements for food such as cereal and snacks. The other big advertisement I see is for fast food chains such as Wendy’s and Burger King. These ads sometimes occur multiple times in a row. Television is a key resource that these companies use to target children, however it is not their only way. Since I live two hours away from Mercyhurst, on my drive back and forth from school, I see many billboards with advertising. Can you guess what is on some of these billboards? If you thought of fast food chains you would be correct. McDonald’s is a huge name seen on billboards along the highway. The famous “golden arch” is hard to miss and is easily identifiable. My sister recently had her first daughter, which makes me an uncle. As she grows up I do not want her to be exposed to advertising encouraging my niece to eat at unhealthy fast food restaurants, or eat food that is detrimental to her health in the long run.
The logic behind why companies advertise towards children is not hard to comprehend. Willette states “young children are uniquely vulnerable to these types of advertisements because they lack the skills necessary to understand the difference between information and advertising” (565). When children see a fictional character such as the Trix bunny, they immediately want to eat that cereal. Companies have even started putting cheap prizes into their cereal boxes as an incentive for children to eat that brand. Although children themselves don’t buy the goods advertised, they nag and beg their parents to purchase these products for them. Parents feel bad and give in to their child’s wants. The effect of advertisement has an indirect effect on the parents of the child who views the company’s ad.
The scientific reasoning behind companies targeting children is very complex and research has been conducted to make sure they have just the right formula to sway viewers. Ron Warren, Robert H. Wicks, Jan LeBlanc Wicks, Ignatius Fosu, and Donghung Chung do a nice job of explaining this understanding in their work “Food and Beverage Advertising on U.S. Television”.
The tactics used by companies have a huge impact on the success of the product they are trying to sell. By targeting young viewers, companies create fictional characters that allow children to better associate with that brand. For example, the cereal company, Trix, uses a fictional bunny that catches the attention of young viewers. Since children enjoy watching those commercials and can easily remember what the character is saying, it is more likely the child will nag their parents into buying that product. Warren et. al writes, “Young children are more attentive to salient perceptual cues such as animation” (233). Another example of this is the use of McDonald’s creating Ronald McDonald. This fictional clown encouraged children to eat at the fast food restaurant. McDonalds even dressed employees as the clown to greet children and families when they enter the building. With a better understanding of how a child’s mind functions, companies are better able to form their advertisements in a way that appeals to young viewers.
When conducting field research, I tuned into the television station for children, Nickelodeon. As I watched the commercials an interesting trend appeared. Most advertisements had either a fictional character or actual children using the product or encouraging other children to use the product along with them. It seemed to be “cool” to do what the kids in the advertisement were doing. To me this seemed to really encourage young viewers to buy the product or eat at the fast food chain advertised. These observations I made allowed me to better understand the logic behind why advertising companies air on these stations.
This topic was very intriguing to me so I decided to conduct two separate field research studies. The second studied I conducted was by contacting my sister that had recently had a baby girl. I told her about my topic and how I found that companies have started to target younger viewers. Although my nieces has a few years before she can watch television and actually comprehend what is happening, I informed my sister anyway and she was taken back. She was had little knowledge that these companies had begun to target children for their advertising. This interview confirmed my suspicions that parents around the United States have very little understanding that big named companies are beginning to launch advertising campaigns geared towards a younger audience.
Advertising companies in the United States have begun to target young viewers in order to boost sales. Their effects are not only short term but long term as well. The advertisements for unhealthy foods can be linked to the rise in childhood obesity in recent years. A better understanding of why these companies advertise towards children can allow parents and advocates to take a stand and bring awareness to this issue. If left unchanged, the effects of these advertisements could lead to an even more obese and unhealthy America. Changes in the way companies are allowed to advertise need to be addressed in order to create a healthier generation.