Food marketing to children: ethical issues

Each of us has definitely seen the scene in the grocery: the small kid is nag­ging, crying, and whining to get his mom to buy him some special sort of sweet products or fast food. At this moment we understand that advertising to children is big business.

The fact that so many commercials on TV, online, in games targeted to children are for foods that are high in calories and low in nutritional value, makes the ethical problem even sharper. On the other side, hundreds of psychologists, marketing experts as well as corporate lawyers develop strategies, which make kids to want attractive “fun” products.

Is it ethical to address commercials for sugar-coated cereals, fast food restaurants, candy to children? This issue is the main topic of campaign, launched in May 2012 at the University of Applied Science in Vorarlberg. According to the research in Vorarlberg´s families with young children, the kids are exposed to advertising pri­marily within the family home. At the same time, parents admit that theygrew up with beliefs of consumerist culture themselves, where the child has the “right to want” and rejecting child´s needs is considered as cruel attitude.

The target group of the campaign are parents of four- to six-year-olds. It´s primary goal is to offer a critical view of children's media consumption and food choices.The campaign does not intend to blame parents for not being responsible enough for their children or to fight advertising promoting unhealthy food and drinks to kids.It rather shows the extreme cases of parents indifferent attitude and attracts attention to the side effects of buying unhealthy food for their children, such as obesity and parent-child conflict.

Telling the story: The campaign which is based on two characters (a boy and a girl), makes use of narrative story telling and embeds the serious issue into entertaining content. The range of colorful illustrations in comic style show the characters in a little cynical manner in different situations: watching TV, requesting the product from a parent, pulling it from a shelf while shopping with a parent buying the sweeties and fast food. On some pictures you can see zombie-children who look exhausted. It symbolizes chilrens vulnerability and helplessness against commercials. The contrast between small age of the children and the awkwardness of the situations they get in increases attention.

Make it simple: The heart of the campaign is community website with a lot of materials,exploring how food marketing affects children. The webpage is already online. It is a great place to publicize new animations, comics, games devoted to the topic. There are forums where parents can discuss how to reduce the influence of advertisements on their children, share their experience with others, and get advice from a psychologists on what works and what doesn’t. The users develop new stories involving the characters.

The campaign will be widely spread using social networks and such platforms as youtube, vimeo etc., which allow to make cartoons and animations available to the wider audience. Being aware of the problem, the parents can take responsibility and play more attention children’s eating habits. Furthermore, the campaign helps adults to realize that their childrenshape the eating/buying patterns of their families. That´s why the campaign focuses on influencing the entire family’s eating culture.

Additional source: Sandra L. Calvert “Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing”