July 26, 2016

Fast Food Marketing to Children: What Parents Can Do

Kathleen Lovlie MD FAAP
Gulf Shores AL
Author of "Practical Parenting: An Un-Politically Correct Guide from the Trenches"

Lately, children and teens are exposed to fast-food advertising from every angle. Traditional print, TV, and radio ads are ever present.  Marketers carefully place products at child height and colorfully design packaging to attract their attention. Mobile devices and social media accounts are plagued with ads.

Social media sites entice with advergames, contests, points to redeem and free downloads. If your child subscribes to or follows a YouTube channel or Twitter handle, he or she is volunteering to be sent endless “opportunities,” with ads attached. These ads encourage users (your children) to “share” and “invite” friends to participate on the websites – free word of mouth advertising! Facebook, for example, comes with 6 billion fast food ads – 19% of the total ads on the site.

Food stylists make their products look better than they ever do in reality. Advertisements suggest health benefits and a happier, more carefree life. They bait with prices that will feed your children more cheaply than a grocery store, until you switch to higher priced items at the counter. Restaurants default to a less healthy options like French fries and soda, rather than the more costly fruit and milk.

The purveyors of fast food are not on your side. Their success depends on your failure, and they have bigger wallets than you do.

Fast Food Ad Facts

Here are some facts about fast food advertising from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity

  • In 2012, 4.6 billion dollars was spent on fast food advertising—a hard number for me to get my brain around. 4.6 billion dollars will buy 920 million kid’s meals: 33,000 lifetimes worth of daily happy meals. Imagine the profit that must be generated to make spending that amount of money reasonable. These people are not your friends.
  • Less than 1% of kid’s meals (33 out of 5427) met USDA nutrition standards.
  • Only 3% of kid’s meals met the industry’s own standards.

Fast Food Ads Have Presence in Your Child’s Life

Fast food ads are unavoidable. Your children will see them and will want what they are selling.

There is no evidence that media literacy in any way defends against the effectiveness of advertisements. Knowing that fast food ads are trying to sell you something that is bad for you does not keep you from wanting it. We are grownups, and we fall for the ads.  We cannot expect more of our children than we do of ourselves.

In the end, it comes down to committing to do the right thing, and then acting on that commitment:

  • Clean out your cupboards and throw out all the junk.
  • Make a healthy meal plan for the week before you shop.
  • Shop with a list made from that meal plan, and stick to the list.
  • Shop at farmer’s markets and around the outer rim of the grocery store. Avoid the aisles unless there is something on your list that is on that aisle.
  • Prepare meals ahead for busy nights, so that you don’t end up in the drive-through line at the fast food restaurant.
  • Keep healthy snack food available at hand: fruits and veggies, whole grain crackers, cheese, popcorn... Throw out the chips and snack cakes.

Why "Never" is Easier for Kids to Understand than "Sometimes"
Remember that “never” is much easier for a child to understand and deal with than “sometimes.” If you never stop at the drive through and never buy junk food, after the first two weeks your kids will rarely ask, even though they saw that yummy advertisement a dozen times and really wanted to try those fruit snacks. Be consistent.

If you sometimes give in, they will ask until your ears bleed. Pestering is powerful when you’re tired and stressed.

Remember, you have the greatest influence on your children’s health. Fast food companies have 4.6 billion dollars on their side, but you have love for your children and the responsibility they handed you with that warm sweet bundle. You win.