Marketing Healthy Food to Kids: Pro

by Bettina Elias Siegel on September 8, 2014

Late last month, I wrote on The Lunch Tray about a former Coca-Cola executive named Jeff Dunn who is using various junk-food style marketing tactics to get kids interested in eating baby carrots.  In that post, I shared excerpts of an interesting Twitter exchange between two food advocates discussing Dunn’s efforts, one of whom has long held that any marketing to children is wrong, no matter how healthful the advertised product, and another who felt that getting kids to eat more vegetables (and perhaps, as a consequence, less junk food) was an entirely positive development.

As a former advertising lawyer for a major multinational food conglomerate, I certainly understand the power of food marketing and, as a parent, I’ve also seen firsthand how uncritically kids can absorb marketing messages.  I certainly remember what it was like to be nagged for sugary cereal after my kids watched a cartoon in their younger days; in a perfect world, I would be thrilled if all children could be raised in an entirely commercial-free environment.

But the world in which we live is far from perfect. Currently, the food and beverage industries spend an astonishing $2 billion per year to specifically target children with advertising, and that money is directed not just to traditional media but also online games, social media and other avenues that are especially hard for parents to monitor.  Invariably, that marketing promotes the least healthy foods to our kids.

Meanwhile, our governmental officials have proven wholly unwilling to place curbs on this advertising deluge. Even with a Democratic president in the West Wing and a champion of anti-childhood-obesity efforts in the East Wing, an attempt in 2012 to create purely voluntary federal guidelines on children’s food and beverage advertising was decisively crushed by industry, just as similar efforts have been defeated in Congress in the past.  Moreover, as the Reuters news agency once noted in a special report on food industry lobbying and childhood obesity:

“At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight during the last decade. They have never lost a significant political battle in the United States despite mounting scientific evidence of the role of unhealthy food and children’s marketing in obesity.”

Given that history and today’s political climate, I’m not terribly hopeful that our elected officials will wake up one morning and find the courage to defy Big Food — and forgo its campaign contributions — nor do I believe that the food industry will change its ways voluntarily.  So, faced with this depressing status quo, I’m willing to overcome understandable squeamishness about marketing to children and let people like Jeff Dunn try to beat the junk food industry at its own game.

And we do know that this sort of marketing works with kids — even when it promotes healthy foods kids might otherwise spurn.  A recent Cornell study, for example, demonstrated that children are more likely to choose an apple over a cookie if the apple bears a sticker featuring a beloved character like Elmo.  Findings like that one are why I was pleased when the First Lady brokered a partnership last year between the Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) allowing PMA’s growers, suppliers and retailers to use Sesame Street’s iconic characters for two years, entirely for free, to promote fruits and vegetables.

Even so, some food activists worry that the allure of a favorite cartoon characters or other marketing will override kids’ innate hunger cues.  But when it comes to minimally processed whole fruits and vegetables, I just don’t think that’s a realistic possibility.  There’s a reason why one of Michael Pollan’s most famous Food Rules is: “If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you’re probably not hungry.” We tend to mindlessly overeat only when food triggers our hardwired love of salt, sugar, fat and refined carbs, but I don’t know of any kids — or adults, for that matter — who gorge on fruits and vegetables to a degree that’s detrimental to their health.

As a writer who focuses exclusively on issues relating to children and food, I’ll certainly continue to advocate (as I have in the past) for a complete federal ban on children’s junk food advertising.  But even if we are able to consign the Lucky Charms leprechaun to the dustbin of advertising history, I might still want to let Dunn’s ninjas sell baby carrots to my kids.  Given that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is unequivocally good for children, how different are Dunn’s efforts from using Sesame Street characters to encourage kids to brush their teeth or licensing Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat character to get them reading?

But that’s a philosophical debate for another day.  In today’s world, parents trying to raise healthy children can’t remotely compete with billions of ad dollars for junk food that’s hyper-engineered to appeal to kids’ palates, products that not only harm their health but have the added drawback of making whole foods like fruits and vegetables seem too fibrous, not sweet enough, or just plain “boring” in comparison (at least to many children).  Standing as I am on that incredibly uneven playing field, I’m delighted to have Coke-trained Jeff Dunn join my team.

(Ed Note: For a counter view on this topic, see Casey Hinds’ story today in Beyond Chron)

Bettina Elias Siegel is a former lawyer, freelance writer, mother of two and school food activist.  She blogs regularly about children and food on The Lunch Tray. Some of the content in this piece was drawn from previous posts on The Lunch Tray.


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