Reasons Why Unhealthy Food Marketing is Discouraged in Kindergarten

10 February 2022

Unhealthy food marketing takes advantage of the developmental vulnerabilities of children and adolescents. Research has shown the effect of various types of unhealthy food marketing on children including advertising on television, digital media content, sports sponsorship, product packaging and collectible toys.

The food industry targets children in a variety of settings including television, the Internet, online games, sports/concert sponsorships, kids’ apps, children’s clothing, branded toys, and fast-food toy giveaways. Children are also exposed to targeted food marketing in their schools, on food packaging, in stores, and in places where kids gather eg. parks, playgrounds, and recreation centres.

Unhealthy foods and food brands marketed to children can influence their food preferences for a lifetime. Marketing can trigger family tension when children nag parents to purchase unhealthy foods they’ve seen advertised. When food companies target kids, it undermines parents’ efforts to teach their children good eating habits, and encourages poor nutrition, leading to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases.

Food marketing takes advantage of the developmental vulnerabilities of children and adolescents. When viewing television, for example, children younger than about 5 years can’t tell the difference between a program and an advertisement. Even older children who can identify advertising lack the cognitive skills and experience to critically interpret marketing messages. Adolescent brains are biased towards rewards, and they are more likely to respond to cues in the environment, such as marketing. When rating the riskiness of everyday situations, young adolescents are heavily influenced by the opinions of their peers, suggesting they place high importance on conformity.

Unhealthy food marketing targets children as consumers in their own right, and as intermediaries who can influence other consumers, particularly their parents (‘pester power’) and peers. Researchers have described a “cascade of effects” in which exposure to unhealthy food marketing influences children’s brand awareness and preferences, and consequent purchases and consumption. Studies have shown that exposure to unhealthy food advertisements increases food intake in children.  For example, an Australian study showed that children aged 7 to 12 years increased food intake following exposure to unhealthy food marketing, and did not compensate for this by reducing food intake at a subsequent meal.

Other marketing of unhealthy food

While television advertising of unhealthy food to children forms a large part of the evidence base for the impact of advertising on children, the effect of other types of marketing has also been studied. Product packaging that includes the presence of cartoon characters has been found to influence taste perceptions in young children.

Online marketing of unhealthy food

The internet is becoming an increasingly important channel for marketing unhealthy food to children and teenagers. Unhealthy food marketers can take advantage of these trends to target children and teenagers using digital media in various ways. They can use advertisements, product placement and ‘advergames’ created or sponsored by companies to embed products into a game. Marketing on social media encourages teenagers to like and share brand posts with their friends, thereby harnessing the influence of peer networks.