The Kid’s Menu: Food Marketing to Children

Kids Menu Title Text

Happy New Year! If you resolved to feed your munchkins a healthier diet (yay!), you need to know that purveyors of fast food are not on your side. Their success depends on your failure, and they have bigger wallets than you do.

Knowledge is power, so some facts about fast food advertising from the Rudd Center:

  • In 2012, 4.6 billion dollars was spent on fast food advertising. That is 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.
  • Fewer 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 was traditionally advertised in print, on TV and radio, and on billboards. Add on product placement and packaging (that attractive box is not at small-hand-reaching-from-cart-distance by accident). Pile on celebrity endorsements and the use of popular characters (Spongebob Squarepants Fruit Snacks anyone?)

Newer methods embrace social media, including YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Americans spent an estimated 121 billion minutes–a total of 230,213 years–on social media in 2012. Where better to find a potential customer?

Social media sites entice with advergames, contests, points to redeem, and free downloads; if your child subscribes to or follows a YouTube or Twitter site he or she is volunteering to be sent endless “opportunities,” with ads on the side. They recruit their users (your children) to “share” and “invite” friends to participate on the websites–free word of mouth advertising! The star of social media is Facebook, but it comes with 6 billion fast food ads–19% of the total ads on the site.

Advertisers hire brilliant marketers to design attractive logos which grab the attention of potential customers. Food stylists make their options look better than they ever do in reality. Ads hint at advantages beyond the food: “Live every day with love” with Ne-Yo at McDonalds, or have cool friends with applewood smoked “bacon teens” at Wendy’s. They suggest health benefits and a happier, more carefree life. They bait with prices that will feed your children more cheaply than the grocery store, until you switch to higher priced items at the counter.

McDonalds alone spends almost three times the dollars on advertisements than all of the fruit, vegetable, water, and milk producers combined.

Children’s advocates fight to decrease fast food advertisements aimed at children, and increase ads for nutritious foods. We fight to have most of the kid’s options healthy, not just the current average of 2%. We work to make fast food restaurants default to a healthy option (apples and milk, rather than fries and soda), and keep those healthy options affordable. We have made inroads, but the struggle is a mountain and profit motive is a mudslide.

Fast food ads have presence in your child’s life. They are unavoidable. Your children will see them and will want what they are selling.

We have absolutely no evidence that media literacy in any way defends against the effectiveness of advertisements. None. Knowing that they are trying to sell you something that is bad for you does not keep you from wanting it. You may not remember that you can “live every day with love” with Ne-Yo, but you will get a bit of a lift when you see that bright red and gold sign. We are grown ups, 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 meal plan for the week before you shop.
  • Shop with a list made from that meal plan.
  • 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 that line at the fast food restaurant.
  • Keep healthy snack food available to hand: fruits and veggies, whole grain crackers, cheese, popcorn… Throw out the chips and snack cakes.
  • Eat the food you bought, at home, with your kids, at the table and with the TV off. So much better than the fast food line with your kids bickering in the back seat!

Most importantly, be consistent.

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.

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

You can do this. They 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.

Domesticated Momster

Anonymity and Denial in the Twitterverse

turtle2-01Playwright Tom Stoppard said, “Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”

I am old enough to be amazed by social media, with its multitude of words and pictures. It did not exist when I was new. If we wanted enlightenment, we went to the library or read the Post. By the time we found our information, the events were already in the past. We knew people of different cultures existed, and events happened, but it was knowledge that came at a distance, blurred by its time-consuming transformation into letters and pictures.

When we curious children wanted to see what a woman looked like without her clothes, we stole our parent’s National Geographic and leafed through it for pictures of deepest Africa. Kennedy and Lennon were shot, but there were no cell phone videos or instant interviews. The stories unfolded over weeks, with time to adjust and get a little distance.

Social media now comes with immediacy and savage intensity. People’s lives are flayed open and placed on the screen for my perusal. If I presume to know anything about that woman in Africa, she can knock me upside the head minutes later, because she is in reality just a hairsbreadth away. If I pretend to wisdom, the whole world can judge me and let me know where they think are my errors in judgement.

This brilliant transparency should make us more authentic, more determined to write nothing that we would not stand behind to our deaths. We should claim our words without reservation. These words. are. me. Sadly, from a place of weakness and fear it can instead make us deny what we know, as we buffer our truth so as not to be responsible for it.

We write, “Tweets do not replace medical advice, retweets are not to be considered an endorsement.” We backtrack, and pad ourselves against risk. The most powerful thing we can do – put our thoughts into words for other people to see – we disclaim and weaken with “tweets are not meant to be advice.”

Of course they are! What would be the point, otherwise?

If we give thought to and write words down then they need to be true. Words are sacred. We record our words in the hopes that they will “nudge the world a little.” If our words are our truth then they have earned our faith: we have to stand behind them with our names and our identities.

Weakening our words by buying into a fear of lawsuits and judgement is a betrayal of our selves; it costs us a piece of our souls. Our words are us and denying them, even in a small part, allows decay to eat away at our own value.

Conversely, since we wrote those words with our very own minds and hands we should never, in the rush to say something, write down what we know is not truth: those words will also follow us through our lives. People sometimes feel that they can be nasty, petty, or judgmental on the internet because they are anonymous. They can twist the facts just a little to make their point. We must realize that there is no such thing as true anonymity. Even if no one else ever knows who wrote those words, you yourself do.

Persian poet Hafez wrote, “The words you speak become the house you live in.” Write only words that have a strong foundation and the solidity of truth, so that your house is yours alone and can hold up to the hurricane force winds of opinion. Hafez’s words are as true on the internet today as they were in the fourteenth century in ink on paper. Such is the power of words. Believe in them, and in your self.