Kids are “Sitting Ducks” for Marketers

October 31, 2011

Later today, researchers from Yale University will present an important new study at this year’s American Public Health Association conference. Their research study shows that food companies continue to aggressively market sugary drinks and other junk foods to young children, despite prior pledges to improve child-directed advertising.

Nearly 600 products from 14 beverage companies were studied. Few of their beverages were nutritionally sound, though many presented misleading health claims – such as claiming “all-natural” or “high in antioxidants” on a high-calorie soda or “low sodium” on drinks that are essentially all sugar.

From 2008-2010, kids’ exposure to ads for sodas doubled, and their marketing has become particularly aimed at low-income and minority populations.

Decades of social science research has shown that marketing strongly affects our preferences and choices. Kids are particularly vulnerable to marketing; they are essentially “sitting ducks” for advertisers.

A recent study that I’ve repeatedly discussed showed that marketing can essentially define what kids like to eat. When kids see a licensed character (such as Shrek or SpongeBob) on a packaged food, they say that the food tastes better than the exact same food packaged without the character. All else being equal, in a “taste test” between the exact same food in a similar packaging, but one of the packages simply has a picture of a fun character on it, kids say that the one with the character tastes better (and, of course, they are more likely to choose it). I’ve spoken and blogged about this.

This is particularly important because we live in a new world in which chronic, often nutrition-related, health problems are the most common causes of disease and death in the U.S. This is a stark change from just a few decades ago, when acute diseases, such as infections like tuberculosis, were the biggest killers.

We would never let our kids be attacked by advertisements for germ-infested products that would make them sick or tobacco products that would give them cancer – yet this is what’s happening right now. Sugary drinks and other junk foods contribute to the unhealthy eating and obesity that is killing as many Americans as tobacco.

And this study shows that things are getting worse, despite the pledges of many food and beverage companies to regulate their advertising to young kids.

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