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

Kids, Tech and the Social Media

So, I’ve been thinking. (Never a good thing)

Would you consider signing your children up for an experiment? I would like to change the way they interact with every aspect of their lives, from how they see time, to how they converse with family and friends, to how they learn and envision the world. I would do this by attaching a devise to their bodies that they would have to consult thousands of times a month in order to function in society. Then we would set them loose and see how they turn out in 10 or 15 years. No safety net allowed!

What makes this experiment interesting is that you’ve already signed them up for it.

Kids these days see a clock as a series of minutes clicking by on a digital device, rather than as two sets of twelve hours, with high noon dividing the day in half – a completely different view of the progression of time from what has been traditional.

Teens text an average of 3400 times each and every month, adding both the immediacy of constant contact, and the distance of a fractional interaction, to every relationship. Are all these “friends” really friends? How easy would it be to substitute these relationships for real ones, which would require work, and personal contact? How will this affect them as their lives progress?

Children learn by searching the Internet, rather than by hitting the library. They won’t see the information in the paper pages surrounding the one they searched for, but they will see all the other stuff that pops up with their search words. It is impossible to know how this will shape their store of knowledge and the way they think, but it is undeniable that it will have an affect.

Video games are everywhere and unavoidable. If your image of a female is a comic with huge breasts and torn clothing, how does that affect how you see yourself, if you are a girl? If blowing things up and chopping at people with a sword are every day activities, surely that will desensitize you to violence.

Who knows what new tech will come out next year, or in ten years, and how it will change our world.

Exposure to the Internet and technology is impossible to avoid. Your children live in this generation, and will have to function within its norm.  The young man without the cell phone will not be invited to the party; the young woman who doesn’t understand the slang used by her peers will get an eye roll and be left standing alone. The intern who looks blank when the boss asks him or her to create a spreadsheet to perform a task or analysis, will not be hired.

If you were to decide it was not worth the risks and tried to limit your children’s access to tech, they would find a way. No one wants to be that kid, and the future demands they have the knowledge and ability.

So what sorts or results might this great social experiment yield?

First, a redefinition of privacy.  What was previously clear – behind the closed curtains, of course! – is now murky. Where does our personal space end, and shared space begin? Embarrassing baby photos in an album can be tucked away on a shelf. This generation will have a childhood full of embarrassing pictures logged on Facebook, for anyone to see.  What should be kept private, and how will we manage it? Perhaps people will become more kind, because they too will have bathtub pictures.

Everyone needs down time. Time spent away from work, away from even friends, is essential for our sanity, yet tech can always find us, and invades every inch of our space. We will need new rules to make us inaccessible in this age of texting, webcams and Skype. Perhaps a privacy button, with an automated butler to take a visitors card for delivery later, when one is “in”?

With knowledge available at the touch of a button, will our children be expected to know more? If information about the new guy’s culture can be had with a keystroke, what reason would there be for ignorance? Laziness, or intentional bigotry? There used to be a limit to our “pocket knowledge.” Now the world fits in our pocket. How do our children live up to that?

The world at one time rotated slowly, and generations could go by before any real change happened. Now every minute brings a new change. Will this make our children frightened and insecure? Or will they be more open to change, more engaged in every moment of the time they are given? Further, could they become change junkies, needing new things constantly to stave off boredom?

Where will this stream of new ideas come from? Creative geniuses are the rock stars of the future.  If creativity is valued above graces like beauty or strength, might our children be unleashed to let free their imaginations? Conversely, will the next generation be judged harshly when they lack technical skills, the way prior generations have been condemned for lack of athletic ability or beauty? Or can we learn to accept the beauty of human diversity, since it will be apparent on a screen in the palm of our hand?

In the same way it is hard with our current technology to maintain privacy, so will it be hard to maintain our distance from the rest of humanity. If we want to believe we are somehow different from and better than other humans, we have to do our best to not see and understand them. This is hard to do when a family suffering on the other side of the world can be on your computer screen instantly, and they can join into the stream of consciousness on your twitter feed.

It is impossible to know how technology will change humanity, but it is inevitable that we will be forced to evolve. So dive in.

Participate in your child’s experience with technology, and inspire them to use it to increase their understanding of the world and express their creativity. Show them the risks, and make sure they understand the responsibilities. Then step back and watch, because the Internet and the array of technological advances available now and into the future gives this generation, no matter their circumstances, the tools to understand each other better than any prior generation, and to do any amazing thing they can imagine. It will be an adventure!