April, 2007

Marketing Food to children Clever Advertising in a Health-Conscious Era
By Kindy R. Peaslee, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 9 No. 4 P. 46

The object of the game is still the same: to influence children’s food habits. But the rules are changing as mega-companies such as Disney introduce a more nutritious appeal.

Food marketing aimed at children is hardly a new concept. Companies know, parents know, and studies show that food advertising to kids through media, toys, games, product packaging, text messaging, and a host of other mediums is effective. Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., believes marketing in and of itself is not bad. Unfortunately, over the past decade, we have seen the negative effects of food marketing on children’s diets when low-nutrient foods are aggressively marketed to kids. Wootan explains that, sadly, today’s parents have been out-maneuvered by food marketers simply because corporations are very savvy with their expert-led persuasive techniques in market research practices.

To influence children’s food choices, companies have used cartoon characters, contests, celebrities, and toy giveaways. Wootan admits that as a parent, she wishes Shrek would come to her house for dinner and encourage her daughter to eat her zucchini. With the history of manipulative marketing to children, parental authority has been undermined. There is a divide between what parents are telling their children is healthy to eat and what marketers are promoting as desirable to eat.

Mary Ann Colegrove, a dietitian in Ohio and mother of two boys aged 10 and 12, finds that meeting halfway is the answer when it comes to her boys wanting trendy, fun foods. Colegrove says, “If my kids think they still are getting ‘fun’ advertised food and it is more nutritious than the other options, I feel good about giving it to them. But I still want to balance it out with other whole foods.”

A dietitian from upstate New York, Kathleen Sirianni-Blood, mother of a 3-year-old, has already observed her young son affected by advertising when he asks for Scooby Doo vitamins and chooses certain juice box brands because of the characters on them. “I think they could put water in the box instead of juice, and he’d like it just as much,” she says.

How Marketers Target Kids
Children represent an important demographic to marketers because they, in essence, have their own purchasing power by influencing their parents’ buying decisions. From the “cradle to the grave” is how marketers tend to categorize children, since they are the adult consumers of the future. Market researchers have found that statistically, parents today are willing to buy more for their children because of the trends of more disposable income generated by both parents working and smaller family sizes. Also, many stressed parents often feel guilty for not spending enough quality time with their children, and parents are pulled into the trap of making unbalanced spending decisions on products for their children.

Marketers employ many strategies to target children and teens. Marketing to children is all about creating pester power, a powerful buying force on which advertisers capitalize. Pester power is defined as children’s ability to nag their parents into purchasing products they wouldn’t normally buy. In the words of an advertising executive, “We’re relying on the kid to pester the mom to buy the product, rather than us [the advertisers] going straight to the mom.”

Due to increased technology, advertisers can now engage with researchers and psychologists to analyze children’s behavior, fantasy lives, and artwork at different ages, then create sophisticated marketing strategies to reach these young people.1

Healthy Children’s Food Trends in 2007
According to an article about new food products by Datamonitor, a market research company, companies admit that marketing to children is getting more complicated. Junk food is now getting a makeover, a trend that parents, who are concerned with both their own health and their overweight children, are driving. One example cited was a new healthy product for children called Fizzy Fruit Sparkling Fresh Grapes, which is adding carbonation to table grapes for the sole purpose of creating a “new snacking taste sensation.”

Fruits and vegetables are being made into chips, ice cream is being enhanced with extra vitamins, and whole grains and heart-healthy oils are replacing white flour and trans fats in cookies. Trend spotter Marian Salzman, author of the book Next Now, says, “The clamor is growing to regulate junk food marketing aimed at children.” This topic raises a number of issues—ranging from truth in advertising when marketing to children to good nutrition.

In October 2006, Disney jumped on the bandwagon of healthy food marketing by putting a more nutritious spin on its theme park snack foods. From the Boston Globe to The New York Times, Disney announced new guidelines that would limit how much sugar, calories, and fat could be in foods marketed by companies with which Disney had licensing relationships. New nutritional standards had to be met, both with Disney brand food products and in its own theme park restaurants. For example, side orders of french fries at Disney park restaurants will default to more healthy choices such as carrots or applesauce. For years, Disney has licensed its powerful brand of characters to food companies such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Kellogg’s. Most of their existing contracts will end by 2008, and all trans fats are to be eliminated from foods at Disney theme park restauants this year.

The Changing Child-Food Marketing Approach
Although Disney’s move toward nutritious foods is bold, it is also following a trend among companies that cater specifically to children and families—to be part of the healthy family solution and more conscious about the nutritional value of their products. Disney has the influence and power of the “fun factor” behind its brand that could encourage kids to eat healthier. Critics of children’s food advertising have largely praised Disney but still believe the company could do more. “I think this is very significant,” says Wootan. “Disney characters will not show up on Pop-Tarts, waffles, and fruit snacks. This will allow parents to feed their children more healthfully.” Wooten continues, “It’s a great first step, but it can’t be their last. They also need to address their television advertising.”

Disney’s new nutritional guidelines are based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, along with the input from a team of child health and nutrition experts, including James O. Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado, and Keith-Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RD, FADA, associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Disney’s nutritional guidelines include the following:

• a cap on calories that results in appropriate child-sized portions;

• total fat not exceeding 30% of calories for main and side dishes and 35% for snacks;

• saturated fat not exceeding 10% of calories for main dishes, side dishes, and snacks;

• added sugar not exceeding 10% of calories for main dishes and side dishes and 25% of calories for snacks; and

• an overall limit—15% by 2010—on the number of “indulgence” items. Seasonal candy and most special-occasion sweets will be made available in single-serving packets.

Along with these nutritional guidelines, Disney has licensed a Disney Garden brand, which will put cartoon characters on fruit and vegetable packaging. Disney is partnering with an Indianapolis-based produce distributor, Imagination Farms, which collaborates with growers from all over the United States. Examples of produce products include peaches with Daisy Duck and Goofy stickers and grapes packaged in Mickey and Minnie Mouse boxes. The vision of both Disney and the produce growers is eventually to supply the entire produce department with Disney Garden products and increase the consumption of fresh produce among kids.

“I respect companies like Disney trying to help change our children’s relationship with food,” says Ann Cooper, also known as the “Renegade Lunch Lady” with a blog about changing school lunches. “It’s important to counteract the tremendous pressure from the advertising that ‘hits’ children from the 10,000 commercials for non-nutrient foods that companies assault them with each year. Big business spends over $20 billion a year to get kids to eat food that they shouldn’t, so I applaud any work that helps to negate that.” Cooper is also the director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District in California and a visionary hoping to transform cafeterias into culinary classrooms for students.

A 2006 study by the Institute of Medicine recommended that mascots appealing to children be used only to promote healthy foods.2 Let’s hope this predicts positive results with Disney’s healthy actions.

Now collaborating with Disney, General Mills is an example of what can happen to food companies that follow media pressure. Remember General Mills’ low-sugar versions of Trix and Cocoa Puffs introduced in 2004 on the wave of the child obesity crisis? They didn’t sell well, and General Mills is now replacing the cereals with new brands that will still keep the food company’s health-conscious image. General Mills’ introduction of the low-sugar brands showed a poorly thought-out response to childhood obesity concerns. However, this time around, the company is taking a smarter approach by introducing cereals branded with Disney characters. These new cereals will adhere to Disney’s nutritional guidelines.3

How Do Children Choose Food?
The children’s market is unique. Children have significant influence on the success or failure of a product, although little or no money actually comes out of their pockets. Just like children of yesterday, today’s children want to be entertained and fit in with their peers.

A group of seventh and eighth graders from South County Secondary School in Lorton, Va., took part in an evaluation project for the August 2006 issue of the KidsFoodTrends Newsletter. Six different product categories (chips, snack cakes, candy, cookies, juices, and sodas) were evaluated based on taste, smell, color, packaging design, graphics, product name, and advertising. Results of the evaluation showed that within the chips and cookies category, packaging was one of the biggest positives in how the students rated the product. Juices and juice drinks also scored particularly well visually with high ratings by the students for packaging design, graphics, and product name. Sodas scored high on taste, color, packaging, and graphics.4

The packaging and product’s image influence whether the product will be chosen for consumption. When judging whether a product is “for them,” children tend to focus on certain cues. Young people are typically drawn to vibrant colors and packaging that is easy for small hands to open. Easy-to-grip bottles, portable containers, and single-serve products are practical for kids who are always on the move. If fictional characters are used on the packaging, they need to change as the child ages—simple, soft, and safe characters for the younger set and edgier characters as children mature.

The product has to “look right” when served, since sometimes children don’t see the packaging if they aren’t involved in shopping or food preparation. They won’t want to eat food they don’t recognize. Mixing many ingredients may be a turn-off if some ingredients are unrecognizable to children. Taste was clearly the most important factor—children want and expect their food to taste great.

Children are highly affected by TV advertising. Advertisements alone can make them want to try a new product, although buying the product is again dependent on whether they like it. Just like adults, kids are also influenced by what their friends think. A friend’s recommendation can be a big reason to try a new product. Children like to see children they can relate to and identify with featured in TV advertisements. Since children look up to older children, it is important that the children featured are either the same age as or preferably older than the target audience.5

As dietitians, we can be part of the solution by educating parents to balance children’s diets with fun foods and whole foods. Creating a healthy culture for our children to grow up in starts with raising children to be critical thinkers rather than simply consumers of new products.

It is difficult to predict just how much food companies and advertisers will complicate children’s food choices, but one thing is for sure: As RDs, it will be interesting to watch this play out.

— Kindy R. Peaslee, RD, is the founder of Kindy Creek Promotions, an upstate New York-based marketing firm specializing in the promotion of natural and organic food and beverage products. She can be reached at kindy@kindycreek.com. Look for her recipe Web site for parents at www.healthy-kid-recipes.com.


1. How Marketers Target Kids, Media Awareness Network. Available here.

2. Food Marketing To Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity? Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences. Available here.
3 General Mills Rethinks Trix, The Motley Fool. Available here.

4. How Kids Choose Food, KidsFoodTrends Newsletter. August 2006. Available here.

5. Making Food and Drinks More Irresistible to Kids, KidsFoodTrends Newsletter. August 2006. Available here.

Dealing with Marketing: What Parents Can Do

• Your clients can educate their children about advertising and how marketers target young people.

• They can help children understand that the main goal of advertising is to make them buy certain items, often ones they don’t need and didn’t even know they wanted until they saw the ad.

• Parents can explain that advertising is big business—one of the largest businesses in the world.

• They should discuss the techniques marketers use to target kids.

• Parents can discuss what advertisers are not allowed to do when making ads for children. They should examine commercials and print ads and determine whether they follow the rules.

• Parents should start to integrate media literacy questions about advertising into the conversations they have with their children.

— Source: Media Awareness Network



1. Prepared Foods is a new food and beverage product development magazine. Print subscriptions are free to persons residing in the United States and Canada. Visit www.preparedfoods.com to subscribe.

2. Advertising Age is a brand news and information weekly newspaper on advertising, marketing, and media topics. Print subscriptions are $99 per year. Visit http://adage.com to subscribe for a free weekly e-newsletter.

3. Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Marketing Junk Food to Kids” and “Pestering Parents” Reports, www.cspinet.org/new/200311101.html

4. The Renegade Lunch Lady, Chef Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services, Berkeley Unified School District — Visit Cooper’s blog at www.chefann.com/blog/?p=441.


1. Kidfluence: The Marketer’s Guide to Understanding and Reaching Generation Y – Kids, Tweens and Teens by Anne Sutherland and Beth Thompson, McGraw-Hill, 2003

2. The Shelter of Each Other by Mary Pipher, Vermilion, 1998

3. Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood by Susan Linn, New Press, 2004