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Junk Food Ads Tips

The fastest way to a kid's brain? Through his stomach. Help kids see through junk food ads.

Kids are bombarded by advertising for junk food and fast food everywhere they turn. According to one study, kids see one food commercial every five minutes during Saturday morning cartoons. Most of these foods are high in fat, sugar, salt, and calories. Fast-food chains appeal to kids with tie-ins to movies, giving toys or prizes to kids who buy certain meals.

As kids age, they are subjected to promotional campaigns with offers for free music downloads, cell phone ring tones, and games sponsored by the food and beverage industry. The beverage industry alone spends more than $3 billion marketing directly to kids. Advertisers sneak junk food – called "product placement" – into hundreds of TV shows, movies, and online games. They even find their way into our schools by way of score boards, special events, fundraising, and textbook sponsorship.

Research, including a 2010 study from UCLA, finds a strong connection between ads and eating habits. One out of every three kids in this country is at risk for becoming obese. American kids consume more than one-third of their daily calories from soft drinks, sweets, salty snacks, and fast food. As kids associate pleasure with junk food, they develop lifelong, unhealthy habits that are difficult to break.

Fortunately, some companies are taking responsibility. More fast food chains offer healthier options for both kids and adults these days. And in June 2012, Disney announced it will limit junk food advertising by requiring advertisers to adhere to new nutritional standards.

These are positive steps to limit exposure to powerful advertising that can influence kids' decisions. Here are some ways you can combat junk-food ads:

Tips for parents of all kids

  • Keep them away from advertising as much as possible. Let them watch commercial-free TV or sign up for a DVR service that will let you skip through ads.
  • Take the TV out of your kid's bedroom. There's a correlation between a children's weight and TV in their bedrooms.
  • Teach kids under 7 the difference between a TV program and a commercial. Point out commercials and use a timer to show them when commercials begin and end.

Tips for parents of elementary school kids

  • Talk about health, not appearance. Help your kids have a balanced approach to food, emphasizing healthy food choices based on nutrition, not diet.
  • Help kids identify junk food advertising messages in product placement, website games, and guerilla marketing. Watch TV or play a video or online game with your child and find the products and logos used as props or part of the storyline. Have a conversation about how the messages try to get kids to buy a product.
  • Start a conversation. Ask your children what they know about who created the ad and what words, images, or sounds were used to attract their attention. How did they feel after seeing the ad?
  • Watch what websites they visit. Some of the most popular websites for kids, such as Millsberry, are actually giant ads.
  • Explain "tricks" that advertisers use in commercials, such as using Vaseline to make hamburgers look juicy.

Tips for parents of middle and high school kids

  • Talk about "super sizing." Your kids need to know that a 32-ounce soda isn't a "good deal." It's a cheap way to add more sugar and empty calories.
  • Agree on fast-food rules for lunch. As in, as little fast-food as possible. Point out why schools around the country have banned sodas and junk food.
  • Take time to have dinner together. We are still the role models for our kids. If we feed them right and set an example for good eating, chances are they will follow it.
  • Talk about peer pressure. Many ads will count on the fact that kids are especially sensitive to peer pressure to be "cool." Remind your kids that advertisers are counting on this vulnerability to sell things.
  • Take the TV out of your kid's bedroom. There's a correlation between a children's weight and TV in their bedrooms.
Caroline Knorr
Caroline is Common Sense Media's former parenting editor. She has many years of editorial and creative marketing writing experience and has held senior-level positions at Walmart.com, Walmart stores, Cnet, and Bay Area Parent magazine. She specializes in translating complex information into bite-sized chunks to help families make informed choices about what their kids watch, play, read, and do.