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Diane E. Levin, Ph.D.

How is junk food being marketed to children? Increasingly sophisticated and omnipresent approaches are being used by industry to marketing unhealthy foods to very young children. 

  • There is the link-up between the entertainment and food industries whereby films, TV programs, and video games are linked to junk food products. 

  • The food industry has joined forces with toy manufacturers to create toys that advertise junk food. 

  • There are "toys" that actually are junk food. 

  • The publishing and food industries produce children's books (including baby books) linked to unhealthy foods.

How did marketing junk food to children come about? Controversy over advertising to children is not new. Until the 1980's the US government played a role protecting children from exploitation.

  • The Federal Communications Commission had the authority to limit advertising on children's TV including the link up of TV programs with children's products until 1984 when deregulation made it possible to market TV-program-linked products to children. 

  • In 1980, the Federal Trade Commission lost its authority to regulate marketing aimed at children. 
    Since then, children have become a separate consumer group and the marketing directed at children, including unhealthy food, has become increasingly far-reaching and predatory. 

Why are current approaches to marketing unethical? Why are children so vulnerable to exploitation? 

  • Because of how children think, they are especially vulnerable to being exploited by advertising. For example, children under 8 cannot understand that ads are created to convince people to buy products or do the kind of logical categorization required to sort our healthy from unhealthy food.

  • Industry marketing takes advantage of how children think to lure them into selecting food based on such things as favorite movie or TV characters rather than on healthy eating. 

How are children being harmed? 

  • At a time of rapid physical growth and when eating habits are being established for life, decisions about marketing to children are made based on a desire for profits rather than a desire to do what is best for children's health.

  • Children's relationship with their parents is undermined as they struggle to process the discrepancies between what marketers tell them to eat and their parent's efforts to provide healthy nutrition. 

  • Associating junk food with toys and play can undermine play and strengthen the link between unhealthy eating and pleasure.

What can be done? The Government has voiced alarm about the nutritional problems of US youth, especially their rising levels of obesity. It is pouring money into public education projects-for instance, to educate parents about nutrition and physical exercise. Such efforts put the blame on parents for current problems and avoid proposing any responses that might affect corporate profits! Any genuine effort to deal with childhood nutrition and health must include corporate responsibility. 

1 Presented at "Consuming Kids: Marketers' Impact on Children's Health." The 2nd Annual SCEC Summit on the Commercialization of Childhood, New York City, September 20, 2002. Organized by the coalition to Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children ( Sections of this paper are adapted from: S. Linn & D.E. Levin, "Stop Marketing 'Yummy Food' to Children, Christian Science Monitor, June 20, 2002, p.10.

2 Professor of Education, Wheelock College, Boston, MA; 617-879-2167;







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