The influence of marketing on kids’ food preferences

By Amanda Johnson 29/03/2011 31


What influences our kids’ food preferences? One factor is certainly the way foods are marketed to kids, and what sort of branding appears on the packaging.

A paper published earlier this month in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent medicine investigates whether licensed media spokescharacters on cereal packaging affects young children’s taste assessment of the products. The study looked at 80 kids with a mean age of 5.6 years. It’ll be no surprise to learn that the use of characters on the food packaging meant the kids liked the cereal more. The authors concluded that,

’The use of media characters on food packaging affects children’s subjective taste assessment. Messages encouraging healthy eating may resonate with young children, but the presence of licensed characters on packaging potentially overrides children’s assessments of nutritional merit.’

So this begs the question as to whether we can place cartoon characters on healthy foods that may traditionally be rejected by young children — spinach, carrots, and fruits for example. Character endorsement on healthy products has been tried before with Sesame Street in 1999 teaming up with a company called Adam & Eve who produce fruit juices and Nickelodeon in 2005 announcing that it would license characters to companies who wished to produce healthier foods for kids. However, the true impact of such marketing strategies to promote healthy foods largely remains unknown.

A paper published last year in the journal Paediatrics also looked at the influence of licensed characters on children’s taste and snack preferences and did try to tease out whether character endorsement would influence preference of healthy foods such as carrots.

This study tested three foods — graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks and carrots — on 40 children aged 4 to 6 years. Each of these three foods was presented in two packages, one with and one without a popular cartoon character.  The characters used were Dora the Explorer, Shrek and Scooby Doo. Children then selected the food they would prefer to eat.

Most kids selected the packaging with the cartoon character for their snack. No surprise there. However, what’s interesting about this study is the effects of branding carrots with cartoon characters were weaker than the effects of branding the graham crackers and gummy fruit snacks. The authors of the paper express concerns that more than advocating the use of licensed characters for healthy foods, their results point to the importance of restricting the branding of unhealthy foods with such characters, as this will increase their consumption among this age group. They conclude that the use of licensed characters on the packaging of junk foods be restricted.

Personally, I think the direct marketing of unhealthy foods to young kids should be prohibited. Encouraging children to make the right food choices should be down to their parents and others who look after them, and any direct advertising, marketing, provision of incentives such as free toys, and promoting unhealthy foods in schools to raise funds, should be abolished.

investigate whether licensed media spokescharacters on food packaging and nutrition cues affect young children’s taste assessment of products

31 Responses to “The influence of marketing on kids’ food preferences”

  • Amanda
    Thanks for pointing out this research, it certainly is revealing and more than a little concerning. Marketers have probably known this for years given the millions of dollars they spend advertising their products.

  • Quote:
    =====
    The authors of the paper express concerns that more than advocating the use of licensed characters for healthy foods, their results point to the importance of restricting the branding of unhealthy foods with such characters, as this will increase their consumption among this age group. They conclude that the use of licensed characters on the packaging of junk foods be restricted.

    What such study useful for other than recommendation (or lobbying) for nanny state? Can’t scientists (who’ll be lobbying or advising politicians) get the hell out of people’s life and let them get on with what they like to buy, eat, drink? Let people apply personal responsibility by themselves rather than a central control busybody bunch of lawmakers deciding on their behalf.

  • If the study is of benefit to marketers, that’s a good thing. However if it is for knowledge curiosity, I think that’s fine too, but if it is aimed or intended to muzzle the members of a free society (via legislation) from freely choosing what they can or can’t do then that’s absolutely infringing on their rights.

  • Adults can certainly apply freedom of choice and responsibility, but we are talking here about children, the most vulnerable members of our society and their nutritional needs are great. We are seeing far too many kids these days with weight and health issues and sub-optimal food intakes and they need to be encouraged to eat the right sort of foods. You are what you eat, and by feeding our kids high quality foods and nutriients we can ensure they achieve their optimal physical and mental development. As for the whole “nanny state” debate – what does that term mean anyway? Perhaps an excessive desire to protect? Surely apporpriate when it comes to the health of our precious children.

  • Falafulu Fisi
    “Can’t scientists (who’ll be lobbying or advising politicians) get the hell out of people’s life and let them get on with what they like to buy, eat, drink?”
    An interesting comment which could be applied to the use of seatbelts, the drinking age etc. (i.e. that the rules around these are not necessary and we should rely on personal responsibility – yeah right.)
    Like it or not research can provide information on social issues, and point to possible solutions. Given that the health problems surrounding obesity and poor eating habits puts stress on our health system, perhaps some restriction on how food is marketed to children is worth considering.

  • Amanda, Kids’ food preferences is the responsibility of the adults (parents or guardians). So, the state should have no role in there. If the kids choose to eat McDonald 7 days a week with the approval of their parents, it entirely their rights to do so and the state shouldn’t regulate what they can eat or can’t eat. It is that simple really, the objective definition of rights.

    Michael, well here is what I say. The roads is state-owned, therefore the owner has the right to tell the users what they can or can’t do. Drinking age? That’s the responsibility of the adults (parents or guardians). The state should have no role in there either.

  • Using the same argument, Falafulu, do you think the parents of Liam Williams-Holloway had the right to deny the child cancer treatment? (we were discussing this case a couple of weeks ago). You seem to be arguing for the supremacy of parental rights, but in that case it led to a tragic outcome.
    I agree with Amanda that the state has a role in the protection of children in many ways – ensuring that they have access to an education, protecting them from abuse [I’m not arguing here that this works as well as it should do in New Zealand] and I don’t see that ensuring good nutrition is so different from these other things.

  • Falafulu Fisi,

    Firstly, minor point, but all the same…, you seem to be assuming parents have control of every meal a kid has.

    Secondly, one role of state government is to limit poor practices for the benefit of the whole population, including saving themselves from themselves as it were. You can argue black and blue about it (don’t we all?!), but it is a role of state government.

    A point made about some children’s legislation is that it speaks for the children and their interests, above that of others (including the parents), so that their vulnerable position isn’t overridden by others’ interests.

    In addition to this, Amanda wrote about “direct marketing … to young kids”, which to me is different from your point about parents having a free choice. Direct marketing loads the dice, leaving the parents damned by the kids if they don’t hold up to the message in the marketing. It’s has the potential to be a pretty nasty form of marketing if you think about it.

    Just thoughts.

    (PS: I wrote this independently of Carol’s comment; just didn’t get around to posting it!)

  • Falafulu Fisi,

    So what you are in effect saying is that it is okay for children of irresponsible parents to suffer ill health? And leave the drinking age up to parents?
    Extending your argument further, should the state therefore intervene if parents physically or sexually abuse their children?
    I agree with you that members of society need to take responsibility for themselves, however, I think there are some areas where regulation can help. Though in an ideal world, education would be better than regulation.

  • I was a bit sceptical about the initial premise of Amanda’s article, so I looked at ‘advertising impact children’ on google scholar. After scanning the first couple of pages of results it looks to me as though there is quite a bit evidence the impact of advertising on children is different from its impact on adults, and is along the lines of Amanda’s post. I think it is important that we form our views from evidence that has some scientific backing.

    With respect to the case for children being allowed to do what they want or what their parents permit, contributers should remember that all taxpayers contribute to the cost of medical care for people whose inappropriate diet has led to adverse health outcomes.

    I am not a nanny state advocate, but the issue is not one extreme or the other. There will be a level of state interference that reduces adverse impacts while preserving considerable freedom, and we will find this level through debate and experience, and from evidence of what works, not through slogans.

  • Carol, I think that the 2 cases, children choosing food they like to eat and the Liam Holloway medical negligence by the parents are not equated to be the same. Here is my argument.

    The primary function of the state in its legitimacy to exist is judiciary/law & order/national defence for the reason to protect individual rights. That is to protect those rights from you violating mine and me violating yours. In other words, rational adult individuals are free to do what they like as long as they’re not trembling on others rights.

    Children are not fully rational yet (I can hear you jumping up now and say that the 2 cases should or must be the same then). One is an imminent danger (Liam Holloway medical negligence) and the other one is not (kids choosing to eat McDs everyday with the full approval of their parents). The state’s responsibility is to protect rights of all individuals (children & adults).

    The state was right in its pursuance to charge the parents of Liam because Liam’s rights were being violated. On the other hand, the state has no business in doing the same to (or regulating) the parents who are willingly approve their childrens’ food to buy & eat such as KFC or McDs (don’t even bring up poison food here because that’s violation of a child’s rights).

    My example is simple, but if the 2 cases are to be equated as one and the same thing, then it is a very slippery road, since the state (& whims of politicians & their busy-body scientists/advisors) can make up arbitrary rules on anything according to their views. Example, kids’ inactivity has some effects on their health. Some are obese for simply sitting all day playing computer games and doing nothing. Is this the sort of kids’ choice (again with the full approval of their parents) be treated the same as the Liam case? Say, that the parents of the obese kids must be prosecuted for health negligence, since they allow their kids to sit all day playing computer games, thus making them unhealthy? The answer is no.

    Kids choosing to eat McDs (with their parents approval), the state should not have a say in there. But who should then? The parents should have a say (it is personal responsibility). How about medical negligence as in Liam’s case? Liam’s rights needed to be protected since a child is not fully rational yet and the state must step in to protect those. Remember, that’s what the primary role of the state, protecting individual rights rather than violating them via nanny state (e.g., by telling people what they can allow their kids to eat & what not), and this is what Amanda is advocating here. In her view, the state knows best. If Amanda thinks that direct marketing to kids is to be prohibited, then why not advocate regulating kids’ time in getting access to computers? Or perhaps regulate parents who don’t encourage their kids to go outside and play for at least 4, 5, 6, etc, hours a week, because inactivity will cause kids harm in their health (at least in the long term)?

    There are some excellent philosophical arguments available on the net on childrens’ rights, which you can find more from those sites.

  • Jacob said…
    Secondly, one role of state government is to limit poor practices for the benefit of the whole population, including saving themselves from themselves as it were. You can argue black and blue about it (don’t we all?!), but it is a role of state government.

    No, that’s is not the role of the state. Dictators can use such misguided notion to oppress its own citizens.

    Relevant to the discussion here are the following blog posts, because they give excellent objective philosophical definitions of what rights is and what government role should be:

    “Cue Card Libertarianism — Rights”
    http://pc.blogspot.com/2005/05/cue-card-libertarianism-rights.html

    “Cue Card Libertarianism — Government”
    http://pc.blogspot.com/2005/06/cue-card-libertarianism-government.html

  • Falafulu Fisi

    I am not arguing for legislating PARENTS, or for taking away free choice! Rather, as Grant Jacobs so eloquently put it, I am suggesting that COMPANIES who directly market to kids should be prohibited from doing do, as this makes the job of parents, who are promoting healthy diets to thier kids, so much more difficult. If kids choose to eat junk food every day with the ‘full approval of their parents’ that is a whole different issue.

  • Amanda, I’ve got a post that is because heldup (for moderation). I think its because it has 2 links in the message. (I noted here @ Sciblog, messages with links are being held for moderation for possible spam perhaps).

    Amanda said…
    I am suggesting that COMPANIES who directly market to kids should be prohibited from doing do

    No, the answer lies in my post (with 2 links in that) which is being held up for moderation. One on rights and one on government. We must start reason from primary and not secondary. Here is a question for you to ponder. In who’s rights is the advertising company violating? You would be amazed to conclude that they violate know one’s rights (again if you reason from primary). What’s the primary role of the state? Theirs is to protect rights and not violating them. For the state to prohibit a lawful business that doesn’t violate anyone’s rights when they directly market to kids is in essence a violation of that company’s rights. The state should not violate rights. The legitimacy of its very existence is to protect them and not violate them.

  • The legitimacy of its very existence is to protect them [rights]

    Compare this with:

    A point made about some children’s legislation is that it speaks for the children and their interests, above that of others (including the parents), so that their vulnerable position isn’t overridden by others’ interests.

    Bear in mind, too, that this direct marketing goes right down to pre-schoolers so pointing a primary school education isn’t really a complete answer. You want to evidence that education at that age could effectively counter what direct marketing can do, too.

    There is a conflict between parent’s “right” to determine for their children (one thing you have argued for) and direct marketing (which you’re also supporting) which runs counter to parents’ efforts.

  • Falafulu Fisi

    It seems that you are arguing against the government influencing the tastes and ‘purchasing habits’ (seems counter intuitive to even use that term) of children, while being completely comfortable with corporates applying similar or more severe pressures.

    You’ve shiftied your argument here from arguing against restricting parents/children’s right to choose (which no one is advocating, here at least) to freedom of business. We limit tobacco advertising, as does most of the developed world. How is this any different on a policy level? I’m afraid to point out, that despite what you might wish, we do not live in a libertarian state, nor do the majority of the population prefer that we did.

    It’s also probably worth noting that we do compel parents to send their children to school by law, but then you probably see this as an egregious violation of rights too.

  • Nick G, yes I had also noted that education is another example where the state has a role in the protection of children.

    Falafulu – your libertarianism is a philosophical stance. I disagree with it. I believe in the social contract and collective responsibility.
    Your tone here is lecturing us because you think we’re all wrong. I don’t think you are wrong, it’s more that you clearly come from a particular ideological position. I’d appreciate it if you could respect our views without telling us we are wrong.

    Here’s a link for you on the social contract if you’re interested.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_contract

  • The state was right in its pursuance to charge the parents of Liam because Liam’s rights were being violated. On the other hand, the state has no business in doing the same to (or regulating) the parents who are willingly approve their childrens’ food to buy & eat such as KFC or McDs (don’t even bring up poison food here because that’s violation of a child’s rights).

    And yet, we know a great deal now about the relationship between childhood diet and Type 2 diabetes. So parents who allow their children to eat a diet of sugar, fat and refined flour — KFC and McDs — are in fact failing in their duty of care. They are being negligent. It’s not an exaggeration to say that in sufficient quantity, this is poison food. (In purely utilitarian terms, it creates unwell, unproductive adults who are a drag on others.)

    Yes, it’s difficult and perhaps undesirable to directly intervene in those parental choices. But Amanda isn’t proposing that (indeed, she says “Encouraging children to make the right food choices should be down to their parents and others who look after them”) and you’re attacking a straw man in pretending she is.

    The extent and manner of marketing towards children by producers of these foods is the issue. Would regulation restrain the ability of these producers to market as they wish? Well, yes. The weight you place on that depends on whether your priorities are practical or ideological. The medical science is pretty clear.

  • Carol you are wrong to dictate to me what I can or can’t do (as long as I don’t violate your rights). I respect your views as long as you don’t tremble on me and this is my argument here. I’m not coercing anyone to follow my philosophy. What I ask for is not to apply state coercion on me. That’s all. However, if you insist that the state should coerce me, then you’re clearly on the wrong here.

    Suppose that the advertising company is mine (if fact I don’t own one but lets just say), then what rights have you/lobbyists/government/do-gooders say that I can’t advertise to kids? I haven’t violated yours one single iota nor anyone else. Can’t the parents forbid their kids from acquiring things based on gorrila advertising tactics or forbid them watching TV advertising therefore avoiding their kids from being exposed to the evil of the world? .Where is my rights to go on with my advertising (since I don’t violate yours or anyone)?

    The argument here is not to lobby for or adopt state coercion because in its very meaning, it is a rights violation. Government is not there to violate rights. It shouldn’t interfere in my advertising business if it is to target children.

    Here is a very good philosophical essay on children’s rights. The download is a zip file that you can unzip into a word-doc.

    “The Foundations of Criminal Child Welfare Law in a Rights-Based Political System”
    http://home.roadrunner.com/~wrthomas/childrits.zip

  • “However, if you insist that the state should coerce me, then you’re clearly on the wrong here.”
    But there are examples where the state coerces us. You and I must send our children to school, or an approved alternative. Are you saying this is wrong?

    Individual rights have to be balanced with responsibilities.
    I’d say that in New Zealand the state is not all that repressive. For instance, other countries have compulsory vaccination for children. Do you think this is wrong too? Clearly there is some infringement of individual rights, but it is balanced against benefits for wider society.

    I don’t really have a problem with the compulsion to wear seatbelts and bicycle helmets – I see it as the price we pay for having a no fault ACC systems.

    Sorry Amanda, getting away from your original post a bit here.

  • Jacob said…
    primary school education isn’t really a complete answer.

    I interpret your comment to mean that my previous argument in reasoning from primary is the same thing. If you interpreted it that way, then that’s what I meant. I meant it in a philosophical definition (from metaphysics/epistemology context) where The primacy of existence states the irrefutable truth that existence is primary and consciousness is secondary. It is similar to developing scientific theories. Once must try and dig down to “first principles” because there is nothing more primary than that. I didn’t mean primary education if I’ve interpreted your comment to be that way.

    It’s on the following link.

    “Reality Is Absolute : The Primacy of Existence”
    http://www.importanceofphilosophy.com/Metaphysics_RealityIsAbsolute.html

    We must argue & reason from primary of existence or otherwise one will encounter contradictions. There is no contradictions in reality on itself, however humans often do.

  • Damn, you can’t edit comments here at Sciblog.

    From previous message I meant to say:

    then that’s NOT what I meant.

  • Falafulu Fisi,

    My surname is Jacobs, with the ‘s’ – you’ve used it wrongly twice now 😉

    No, that’s is not the role of the state. Dictators can use such misguided notion to oppress its own citizens.

    Please don’t berate me. That is your opinion, not a statement of fact. As an opinion it isn’t “just right”. In my experience, in practice governance is not simple idealism, but has to be pragmatic at points. Most points, even.

    Colouring this as ‘dictatorial’ and ‘oppression’ seems silly in my opinion. Obvious exceptions aside, surely what distinguishes a dictator’s actions from democracies, etc., is that the call to enact a law (etc.) is ultimately able to be made & altered by the populace, not what the law is per se. I’m not saying this to be done in a ‘dictatorial fashion’ – there’s no need for that and you’re foisting that one on me! They can speak for themselves, but I doubt anyone else here is suggesting that either.

    Regards your latest comment: while I accept my error I’m not a fan of philosophy in cases like this as it’s too often used as an excuse to self-justify rather than help. Also, please stop damning aspects of sciblog’s comments; whatever faults it has, the set-up here is quite typical of many blogs worldwide.

    You seemed to have overlooked the first and last points of my previous comment.

  • Falafulu Fisi

    “Can’t the parents forbid their kids from acquiring things based on gorrila advertising tactics or forbid them watching TV advertising therefore avoiding their kids from being exposed to the evil of the world?”
    Some parents can and do, some parents don’t and can’t. So the question is should society create rules that help the children of less diligent parents, even if they are a slight incovenience to others? Those with a libertarian bent will usually say no, those with a liberal bent will usually say yes.
    However when it comes down to it, the problem is we all have different views on where to draw the line when it comes to governmental intervention in the rights of its citizens.
    My guiding principle would generally be “what is better for society overall?” In this case, I think limiting how poor food choices are advertised to children seems like a good idea.

  • […] This isn’t as hard as it sounds, and The Conversation already has AAP as a strategic partner, suggesting some content sharing with the newswire service is in the pipeline. At  Sciblogs, we’ve found that articles written here can quickly catch the media’s attention. Today alone, nutritionist Amanda Johnson was on radio and TV on the back of her piece about the influence of marketing on children’s perceptions of food. […]

  • Grant said…
    Colouring this as ‘dictatorial’ and ‘oppression’ seems silly in my opinion. Obvious exceptions aside, surely what distinguishes a dictator’s actions from democracies, etc., is that the call to enact a law (etc.) is ultimately able to be made & altered by the populace, not what the law is per se.

    You still don’t get it Grant? Altering by the majority/populate is still violation of individual rights? How hard it is to explain this very simple concept? How about you get over the notion that whether it is via majority or minority decisions it doesn’t change the fact that it is a rights violation after all. Countries with Sharia-law is very oppressive, I’m sure you wouldn’t want to live there or bring up your children there. Such theocratic system violated individual rights from the outset of its very foundations of its laws and it has been imposed by a few and coerces the whole population to follow it.

    Grant said…
    I’m not saying this to be done in a ‘dictatorial fashion’ – there’s no need for that and you’re foisting that one on me!

    How else the policymakers are are going to enact it into law without violating the rights of the marketing companies to advertise targeting kids? There is no way isn’t it? The state (with their lobbyists) either ban it (rights violations) or do nothing about it (no one’s rights is being violated). If the state bans it, its rights’ violations, full-stop. If you tell someone of what he can or can’t do (via legislation), I would call that dictatorial. I just read last week that Tariana Turia (Assoc Minister of Health) is talking about a government plan to get rid of smoking by 2025. This is social engineering at its worst. The study quoted by Amanda on this blog post will be used by self-important politicians like Tariana for social engineering. Isn’t that dictatorial to citizens or you don’t see it that way?

  • FF,

    Stop trying to talk down to me, please. I’m well aware of different political systems. FWIW, I’ve experienced them first-hand in my travels. You don’t seem to understand the difference (you’ve walked around the point I made again) and you’re rude. Given your attitude and the way you are addressing me, I will not waste more of my time with this.

  • Grant, I appologize if you felt that way, I had not intended it that way.

    I would like to finish my contribution on this thread with a quote from 3rd US president Thomas Jefferson, which sums up everything that I have been arguing about here. Concensus of the majority doesn’t equate to rights preservation. It is the opposite. Most of the arguments here are based on the populations, our, we, majority, greater good, overlooking the fact that rights is a primary and it cannot be decided by the majority.

    A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.

  • Just for you, Mr Fisi:

    In a speech in the House of Commons on 11 November 1947, Winston Churchill said:

    No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.