The Common Good

Princess Pop Tarts and LEGO Waffles: The Dangers of Marketing Food to Children

There is a dangerous marketing strategy when it comes to food and our children. No, it’s not “sugar” or “fat” or even promotions of “low sugar” or “low fat."

Most of the food-marketing ploys aimed at kids are contributing to the soaring rate of obesity.

Here’s why, and here’s why it is so personal to me.

I’ve told my story many times of how I struggled with being overweight as a child and teen.  The problem wasn’t “baby fat," it was the freedom I had to eat O’Henry bars and ice cream on a daily basis at my grandparents' house. How fun!! Weekly visits to Bullwinkles (does anyone else remember that place?) and McDonald’s made eating exciting!

Back in the 1970’s and '80’s, marketing food to children as entertainment was only making its debut. Now, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry that’s derailing healthy lifestyle patterns for our kids right before our eyes. And we’re OK with that?

I heard about this marketing conspiracy in Charlene Elliot’s TEDxYYC talk. She singlehandedly dropped all our jaws as she uncovered the motives and strategy behind food marketing to children. I am happy to pass this information onto you.

Here’s the problem: Children under 12 have no idea they are being “marketed to.” All they know is that they've seen something in a commercial that they HAVE to have. Kids take what they see at face value.  Even the odd health-conscious child wouldn’t understand that not all foods marketed as “healthy” really are.

I mean, Fruit Loops? A  good source of fiber? Seriously.

Here’s what Elliot said that had me begging her to tell me more about what I’ve been blind to:

“Child marketing disassociates children with nutrients and make kids buy into the idea that food is entertainmentl." 

If they can do that, then they can entice masses of children (aka sucker-parents) into buying whatever chemical, I mean, food they want. After all, look at how FUN this food is to eat!!

Below are a couple of examples how food marketers boldly target children with the hook of “fun”:

These are clearly being marketed to children aren't they? Unless you’re a huge adult LEGO fan, that is. 

Do you see the message? “Eat these waffles because they’re FUN!”

OMG! PRINCESS Pop Tarts!! Now THOSE would be fun to eat!!

No one’s gonna buy an “unhappy” meal, now are they? They'd probably loaded it with carrot sticks!

Ever been to a Weight Watchers meeting? Or Jenny Craig? I’ve been to both, and the common messages  are: 

  • “Don’t eat when you’re bored." 
  • “At a party, focus on talking to people, not eating." 
  • “Don’t eat out of emotion."

These are important guidelines to follow in order to deprogram our minds from what marketers have told us — that somehow food is for entertainment or to fill a void.

We are allowing this mindset not only to remain in our children, but become an even greater influence.  Marketers are teaching your kids nutrition, and it’s not good. Are you going to put up with that?!

Elliott went on to describe a group of children who were asked what they considered to be “kids food” and “adult food."

Here’s what they said:

Kids food: junk food, sugar, candy

Adult food: veggies, salad, meat

Any of you who have tried to shove a carrot down your child’s throat (obviously not literally) know this to be true.

So what do we do? We get sneaky about it!

We start pureeing spinach and putting it in brownies! We buy cookbooks such as Deceptively Delicious and trick those little darlings into getting what’s good for them. Right?

Raise your hand if you're guilty of this. (Raises hand.) I know I am.

Unfortunately what sneaky tactcis do only enhances marketers' message that veggies are boring and must be hidden. If only they could grow a cucumber in the shape of Superman…I’m sure they’re working on it.

Do I have this all figured out? HA! My pantry reveals I have bought these marketing gimmicks hook, line, and sinker. Sure you’ll see “organic” cereal, but it still has a ton of sugar (and a GORILLA on the cover.  You gotta love organic marketers' idea of “fun.”)

I do, however, have some intentional steps I’m taking to try to improve the message being preached to my kids about food. I want to be the one (as much as possible) educating my kids about food.  This means I:

  • Tell my kids what different foods do to their bodies. “Milk will give you strong bones.” “Spinach will make you strong.” (OK, that last bit a Popeye farce. Oh well, can’t hurt, right?) “Eggs will give you lots of energy!” “Almonds will help your brain.” (I. Must. Eat. More. Almonds.) I love it when my son refers to McDonalds as “poison” —  poison he still wants once a week.
  • Limit TV. Commercials are my nemesis. Thank God for Netflix.
  • Tell my sons if they want a treat, they have to eat something healthy first. (Note: This cannot be repeated continuously throughout the day.)
  • Teach my sons the difference between food being “entertainment” and for “pleasure." Food IS meant to be enjoyed, but it is not meant to be a void-filler. This means I have to watch my emotional eating…. Drat.  It always comes back to the patterns I model.
  • Go out for walks for “fun”.

I even know some crazy people who once a week feed their family rice and beans to remember the families around the world who aren’t as lucky as us. Now there’s some perspective.

It’s a big dog to take on, but I believe as we rebel against what the WANT-marketers continue to foist upon us we can take back the health they’ve stolen from us all for the sake of the almighty dollar. How low can society go?!

What are YOU going to do about it?

Connie Jakab is the author of the blog, Culture Rebel, which is also be her first book title released in 2012 with others such as Mommy Culture Rebel, Church Culture Rebel and Raising Culture Rebels to follow. Connie is passionate about rebelling against status quo living and encouraging others to branch out. The founder of WILD (women impacting lives daily) as well as Mpact, a dance company that produces shows based on social justice issues, Connie drives her passion outward into the arms of those wanting something more radical and meaningful in life. Connie is an active speaker and worship leader, and lives with her husband and two boys in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She can be found on Facebook and on twitter @ConnieJakab.

LEGO Eggos image via Wylio. Princess Pop Tarts image via Amazon.

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