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Following Disney’s Lead in Food Marketing to Kids

Posted 07.10.2012

By Gayla Greene, Account Supervisor & Melissa Anderson, Account Director

It isn’t groundbreaking news that there is an obesity epidemic in America. Numerous studies have shown how children will now have health issues previously found only in adults, including high blood pressure and diabetes, before they hit 20 — some before they hit puberty. Obesity affects not only the nation’s health care system, but how we manage our day-to-day lives.

Several EnviroMedians recently attended a webinar called Food Marketing 101. This webinar was held on the heels of Disney’s exciting announcement that the entertainment conglomerate will be updating its marketing standards for its child-focused media outlets, including Disney TV, radio and websites. These changes extend to upgrading nutrition standards for the foods served in the theme parks as well as for Disney-licensed products.

Why is this a big deal?

The answer may be surprising. Companies spend $2 billion a year on marketing food to kids. That’s roughly $5 million per day. The majority of what is advertised isn’t healthy, either: 80 percent of the products marketed are higher in fat, sodium and sugar than federal nutritional guidelines recommend.

Kids are a coveted audience by marketers for several reasons. First, they are an influence market, meaning they are able to influence their parents’ purchases. We sometimes refer to this as the pester market, as kids will often ask over and over again until the parent caves and something like a sugary cereal lands in the shopping cart. Second, older kids now are a primary market. They purchase foods on their own when out with friends, or in schools with snack lines and other options than regular school meals. Third, they are a future market. When marketers build this awareness, preference and even loyalty in young children, those children are more likely to continue to purchase the product or brands in the future.

In the days of integrated marketing communications, a fancier term for using multiple media outlets as opposed to just television commercials, children are constantly bombarded with food product messaging. On TV, radio, the Internet, clothing, in stores, at the movies, outside and even at school – there is no shortage of colorful, fun images to appeal to their senses. According to the Yale Rudd Report released in May 2012, there hasn’t been much of a reduction, if any, in the number of television ads viewed by children (ages 2-11) and adolescents (ages 12-17) in the food and beverage category since 2010. The average child viewed 2,983 total food or beverage ads in 2011, while adolescents viewed 3,663. That calculates to 13 and 16 ads per day, respectively. In comparison, the average adult saw 4,483 ads in 2011, or about 20 per day. If that doesn’t sound like a lot (which it should), remember these statistics only measure television advertising, not all food marketing.

So food marketing, especially for unhealthy options, is big business. Why, then, is such a large corporation like Disney taking the lead in changes that will no doubt impact its profit margins? And does food marketing even have an impact on our children’s health? In its Food Marketing Report from 2006, the Institute of Medicine stated that there is a strong correlation between food marketing and product purchase requests, short term consumption, and body fatness for both the child and adolescent age groups. In essence, food marketing is directly changing children’s diets, and not for the better.

With the amount of money spent on marketing food to children, and the IOM research about food marketing, what can we do to help our children be healthier? Parents and caregivers are fighting an uphill battle with the billions of dollars spent to market to their children. However, education and awareness are two weapons in our arsenal for reversing the trend.

Disney acknowledges the influence its characters have on children and its responsibility to do something for children’s best interest. Many health-oriented groups across the country are applauding Disney’s announcement and watching to see how this unfolds. With HBO releasing a documentary, Weight of the Nation, which dramatically highlights the issue from a multitude of angles, mainstream media is acknowledging the issue and working to level the playing field. And hopefully other companies will feel the pressure to follow Disney’s lead.

The obesity epidemic in America is staggering, but we are at the tipping point of change. With increased awareness and proposed solutions, parents and caregivers may soon be able to win more grocery store battles as the marketing to their children changes. This will no doubt lead parents to a new challenge: the trend of leanwashing, in which companies position their products to seem healthy, even when they are not.