Thursday, March 29, 2007

Food Marketing and Your Child

Part I, The Small Screen with Big Impact

It’s great timing for this last segment of my series on childhood nutrition. The Kaiser Family Foundation just released its report, “Food for Thought: Television Food Advertising to Children in the United States.”

The report echoes much of the information in the Institute of Medicine’s book, Food Marketing to Children and Youth. Both are good reads for parents. The Kaiser report focuses mainly on television ads to children. The numbers are equally as frightening as obesity statistics. For example, based on a national average viewing time of four hours per day for a child, over a year’s time he is exposed to nearly 30,000 commercials.

That statistic is based on the maximum regulated amount of commercials that can be shown during an hour of programming. Not all networks adhere to this maximum. In 2004, children’s network Nickelodean violated this regulation 591 times. They were fined $1 million, far less than the amount netted from the additional commercials.

The biggest ethical void, however, is that much of the television programming and commercials are aimed at younger children who are unable to differentiate the marketing messages from the program content. Given that most of these ads are fun, fast-paced and use licensed or branded characters, the similarity between the two makes this differentiation even harder to distinguish. In other words, young children absorb the commercials as easily and readily as the program content. Thus, selling candy to a baby is easier than taking candy from a baby.

Some other disturbing statistics include the fact that nearly one-third of children under the age of six have a television in their bedroom. Two-thirds of children aged eight and older have a television in their bedrooms. Between the ages of two and four, children view approximately two hours of television per day. This increases throughout childhood and peaks at adolescence. Tweens and teens begin to replace television use with internet use, or will multi-task, watching television while online.

Possibly the most depressing statistic in the mix is this: sixty percent of all the meals families eat together (and those are not many) are eaten with the television on.

Of all the commercials that children are exposed to, nearly half are for food items such as sweetened cereals, candy, soda, and fast food. Not surprisingly, these four categories represent the top items purchased directly by children and teens. Children aged four to fourteen spent $30 billion of their own money. Teens aged twelve to nineteen spent $175 billion. One-third of this money was spent on candy, snacks, fast food and breakfast cereals. Although there is not definitive evidence that the heavy marketing drives the demand, there is definitely a correlation.

This amount represents a significant market alone. However, the lure of marketing to children is that they represent a marketing triple play. Children make direct purchases as a primary consumer. They also influence the purchase decisions of the household for an estimated $500 billion annually. The purchase category most influenced is food. Nearly 80 percent of children have major influence over food choices for the family. Third, children represent the future market of adults for a given brand. Setting purchase preference and brand loyalty early is key to sustaining this future market.

While the spotlight is cast on the television screen with this new report, it is important to remember that of the $12 billion spent marketing food products to children, only twenty percent of this is for all measured media, meaning television, print, radio, and internet advertising. Twenty percent.

So, where does the other eighty percent go? Nearly half of that goes to trade promotion, other spending is for licensing of recognized characters and celebrities, event marketing, embedded marketing and promotions, product placement, co-branded toys and premiums, and marketing in schools.

I will cover these types of marketing and how they impact children in Part II of this topic. The final part will cover what we parents can do to counterbalance the food marketing efforts and to prevent childhood obesity in our own communities.

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