Marketing junk food to my kids: $1.6 billion says it works

This just in via the Ethicurean: in 2006, the U.S. food industry spent $1.6 billion — that’s billion, with a ‘B’ — marketing to children.

The scary thing? The FTC is heralding this $1.6 billion as “progress”.

If that’s what “progress” means, perhaps that explains why researchers at Johns Hopkins now estimate that a staggering 86% of Americans will be overweight or obese by 2030, a mere 2+ decades from now.

Does all this advertising work? You bet it does. Just hang around a supermarket and listen to conversations between parents and kids. Listen to those kids asking for products by name. Watch the children hold up boxes of Sponge Bob Square Pants mac and cheese, crying “pleeeeeease.”

Hell, take my kids to the supermarket sometime. Just watch them beg.

This is the inevitable part where somebody invokes the words “parental responsibility.” And I assure you: I know all about parental responsibility. I’m all for parental responsibility and I’m plenty willing to have a real conversation about parental responsibility. But I’d rather have that conversation once food companies stop doing everything in their power to undermine parental authority.

Oh food companies, wielders of budgets as large and as daunting as our nation’s ever-rising Body Mass Index, as long as you are undermining my authority as a parent, your words about my responsibility as a parent ring just a wee bit hollow.

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8 Responses to “Marketing junk food to my kids: $1.6 billion says it works”

  1. 1 karen July 30, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    I am much worse about junk food than my kids (in large part because I have a bigger allowance and my own car, so I can get Doritoes at midnight when the fancy strikes. Or send my husband for them…). Still, because I do feel parental responsibility begins at home, I am not a frequent indulger. My worst vice is Lucky Charms. I managed to keep the kids off heavily sugared cereals until they were 6 and 4, by sneaking my precious Lucky Charms in when they were asleep or not at home. The day they caught me was the end of no sugary cereals for them, as I knew it would be. We still mainly have healthy cereals, but every now and then, a box of Lucky Charms or Sugar Smacks appears in the cupboard. One day, due to TV, my kid asked for Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Remembering my first run-in with that stuff in the ’80s, I wrinkled my nose, said he wouldn’t like them and suggested a better tasting sugar-fest. He insisted! He KNEW he would like them! The commercial says they are GOOD! So, I made him hold the box and say, “Mama does not like the taste of these but we are buying them because I asked and I will have to eat them all, if nobody else likes them.” The next morning, he had his first bowl. He managed three bites before he growled, “That TV commercial is WRONG, these are not good!” Still, he suffered through three mornings of the stuff before I took pity on him and emptied all but one last bowl down the disposal and we haven’t had trouble from TV commercials since!

  2. 2 nyjlm July 30, 2008 at 5:39 pm


    I loved Wall-e, but was so frustrated by the incongruousness of WHO was sending the message that there’s too much crap in the world.

  3. 3 nono July 30, 2008 at 7:56 pm

    I have to say that I’ve been able to dodge that bullet so far for the most part. Sometimes they’ll catch a toy commercial, but PBS and Sprout seem to have less of that marketing onslaught.

    My sons are 3 & 5, so I know my time is limited…but I really hope that I’ll be able to keep them stuffing them with healthy options….with your help of course!!

    Oh, on a different subject I was happy to see that my local Shaw’s supermarket, is now carrying a Whole Grain White Bread with NO HFC Syrup! Just came out with it in the past month I believe. After I had talked to you about bread options, I had been doing Pepridge Farm’s Hearty Oatmeal (not the light…the light has the HFCS in it) then I switched to Country Kitchen’s Whole Grain White and have been using it over the past 6 months (both the hubby and kids like it.) I would get frustrated though as there were no options if they were sold out. Now, I have another. They are both priced similarly.

    I know they’re not organic, but with your help and the education you’re giving me, I’m making baby steps. My first goal was to get rid of the HFCS…and boy was I surprised at how hard that turned out to be, just in our bread alone.

  4. 4 TWBernard July 30, 2008 at 11:07 pm

    While Wall-E was indeed terrific, I found the message blunted not only by the messenger, but also by the fact that when we went to see it, the theater employees were handing out cheap and cheezy Wall-E souvenir watches. Talk about missing your actual point.

    Ali, I’m right there with you on the marketing to kids. At the same time, though, I’m finding that the better I try to eat (and the more I internalize the gospel according to Pollan) the more aware I become of all food marketing, not just the stuff directed at kids. I mean, sure, the kid-level stuff is especially insidious because it helps to establish affinities and patterns at an early age, with the marketing messages we experience as we get older serving to reinforce and expand this initial indoctrination (“Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life”).

    It’s no great revelation to say this, but most of the stuff in the market, and in the ads, is unhealthy and unnecessary. Is there a place for unhealthy and unnecessary foods in moderation? Sure. Hell, there’s arguably room for people to choose to make immoderate amounts of unhealthy and unnecessary foods part of their diet, provided they understand and accept the risks associated with these behaviors. It’s a lot easier to see bright packaging and shiny advertising, and to make the impulsive decision than it is to be informed, though, at any age.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’ll go play some Solitaire.

  5. 5 Vikki July 31, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    I still remember with fondness the time my son got a goody bag at a birthday party and pulled out the package of Oreos and said, “Hey mom! Tattoos?” He had no clue. Those were the good old days! Now, my kids know much more about junk food, video games and all of the other kid crack out there. Our kids don’t watch TV but they hear about this stuff from other kids and also from those strolls down grocery store lanes. My oldest (7) is so desperate to be like other kids that he asked Santa for fruit roll-ups…you know the nasty kind that are not actually fruit. Santa delivered by the way.

  6. 6 Trisha August 1, 2008 at 12:21 am

    My ten-year-old asked the other day, “Mom, what do Twinkies taste like?” And she just tasted a Cheet-o for the first time in her life (she declared it delicious, but luckily she thinks the same of snap peas, plain yogurt, etc.). I’m doing the best I can to keep my kids away from the very money makers the food companies want me as a parent to buy, yet for all my efforts, the awareness is there, seeping into their little minds. It’s insidious. But “they” say that kids are more influenced by their parents than anyone else. Let’s hope that holds true.

  7. 7 Andrea August 5, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    Amen. I knew it was going to be bad when my toddler was asking for cartoons by name. Before long, it was going to be food, but by far my biggest food enemy with the marketing is McDonalds. I can’t count how many times I have to tell my kid no to his Mickey Ds requests. Multiple requests. Per day.

    Makes me want to shove that chicken mcnugget where the sun don’t shine on those golden arches.

  8. 8 Karen August 8, 2008 at 12:20 am

    Talk about undermining parental authority. . . Did you seen the Chef Boyardee commercials awhile back? A girl asks for the Chef at the store, but the mom says the girl has already had it three times that week, she won’t get it again today. The girl frowns in disappointment. Then the can ROLLS ITSELF off the shelf, down the street, dodges obstacles and cars and dogs and so forth, until it rolls into the girl’s living room and bumps her foot. She picks up the can and smiles contentedly. The commercial is a metaphor for the whole situation – parents say no, but the product still makes it’s way into the kid’s life, by force.

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