The Controversy of Marketing to Children

The Controversy of Marketing to Children



The success of corporations marketing food products to children has drawn criticism from various special interest groups. There is a growing controversy on the ethical implications involved.  Many issues such as obesity, compulsive behavior and self identity crisis in children have been blamed on marketing targeted to children.

The Controversy of Marketing to Children


Advertising has evolved over the years from a way to expose a given product or service to a scientific approach.   Marketers have effectively researched techniques on how to manipulate a target consumer into purchasing their products.  Children have been a favorite of corporations because they can be easily convinced to desire their products.

While this has proved to be extremely profitable for the marketers, opponents believe that targeting and manipulating children is not ethical.  In order to understand this controversy, an examination of techniques and the implications of marketing food to children will be introduced.

Children as a Powerful Marketing Segment

In the United States there are about 40 million children between the ages of 5 and 14.  Children in one of three American families are reported to influence dinner grocery purchasing decisions.  Furthermore, children always or often influence the purchase of breakfast foods (Hunter, 2002).  To measure this influence on a monetary scale, children are responsible for influencing more than 170 billion dollars a year of their parent’s money and an additional 22 billion dollars of their own funds.  This purchasing influence is likely to increase in the future (Hunter, 2002).  Children represent about one third of the major market (Beder, 1998).  Marketers have come to realize the influence that children have on household purchases.  Children are viewed as a powerful segment to be contended with (Stanton, 1998).

Not only do children represent the current market, but they also represent the market of the future.  Children are viewed as vulnerable marketing targets.  They can be easily manipulated into developing purchasing habits that will be carried into adulthood (Beder, 1998).

As children age, their impact and influences on purchasing decisions take different roles.  There are several stages that children are in as they grow (Beder, 1998).

  • From age one: Accompanying parents and observing.  Children are exposed to the shopping world and observe their parents choose products from a vast selection of attractive items (Beder, 1998).  Items purchased by parents are chosen fully based on decisions made by parents (Moser & Horton, 1999).
  • From age two: Accompanying parents and requesting.  Children are starting to request items that they recognize from media advertisements.  They may reach for these items, whine, grunt, and cry or make some other gestures that they desire these products (Beder, 1998).  At this stage, children begin to badger their parents to purchase specific products (Moser & Horton, 1999).
  • From age three: Accompanying parents and selective with permission.  Children are able to make their own choice and present the products to their parents for approval.  These products are mostly recognized from advertisements on television (Beder, 1998).
  • From age four: Accompanying parents and making independent purchases.  Children can learn to make their own purchase for products that they selected.  Children may be allotted their own funds by their parents or another source to make a purchase (Beder, 1998).
  • From age five: Going to the store alone and making independent purchases.  Children yearn for the power to make their own decisions.  Children are likely to purchase products tied with the brand names that they have been exposed to on television or another advertising media (Moser & Horton, 1999).

Advertisers claim that they are merely empowering the children into the marketing process.  Critics rebuff these statements and declare that children are naive in this stage of life and are taken advantage of by marketers.  Although many different products are targeted to children, critics have focused on the exploits of advertisements of low nutritional foods (Moser & Horton, 1999).

The Product Demands of Children

Being that children are viewed as such a valuable segment, companies must seek out techniques to ensure that children take interest and understand advertisements the first time they are exposed to them (Barrett, 1997).  Manufacturers that fail to reach the children effectively will be largely ignored by them (Beder, 1998).  Millions of dollars are spent each year by advertisers to research effective means of reaching children (Hunter, 2002).  These techniques are constantly being updated to keep up with the changing attributes of children’s trends (Barrett, 1997).

Food manufacturers have made use of research to help keep in touch with the desires of children.  One of the most successful research tools has been using focus groups with children.  Researchers listen meticulously to find out what children want to eat, when and where they eat, and what attracts children to food products (Hunter, 2002).

Food producers have established that children prefer exciting packaging, flavor matters, and largely ignore the nutritional aspects of food.  Children are obsessed by fun and instant satisfaction.  Children love wild names for flavors and colors.  The use of attractive bright colors on packaging with creative names has been found to allure children.  Children also love food products that contain toys and gadgets.  Colors of the food itself have also come into play (Hunter, 2002).

Blue is now the favorite color of children.  Food companies have responded to this by introducing blue food coloring in their products.  This has resulted in products such as blue French fries, margarine, soda, applesauce, and mayonnaise. Products that will turn their tongue blue are an additional thrill (Hunter, 2002).

Other colors can be extremely popular when the product has a different color than what is used traditionally.  In response to research by Heinz, the company introduced ketchup that is the color green.  This introduction has created a surge in the interest that children have in the ketchup market. Sales for this products reached ten million dollars in the first seven months. Children have also requested that Heinz create additional colors in the future.  The company already has plans for a purple color to be introduced (Hunter, 2002).

Cartoon characters have also played a dominant marketing role in attracting children.  Food marketers may try to develop their own sentimental characters.  They may elect to license an already popular character that children are familiar with on television or at the theatre.  Children are also preferable to packaging that can be easily held in their hands or shaped like a cartoon character or animal (Hunter, 2002).

Noting that the children are driven by fun, not much research is invested in the nutritional substance contained in the food. These marketing practices have raised concerns with nutritionists and other groups as well (Hunter, 2002).

Parents are coaxed by their children to purchase food products based on the children’s appeal to the product resulting from these advertisements (Hunter, 2002).   In a poll administered by, parents were asked a series of questions concerning food marketed to children.  Eighty percent of parents polled found that the source of brand recognition for children was television ads.  There were 81% of the parents that agreed that there was too much food marketing to children.  Although 51% thought that the taste of these foods was good or excellent, only 7% agreed that the nutritional content of these foods were good or excellent (Brandweek, 2002).

World Nutritional Concerns

The American Medical Association has warned the nation that obesity is the leading health problem.  Researchers found that 30.5% of Americans are considered obese.  This has increased from 22% indicated in a similar study conducted during the 1990’s (Raeburn, 2002).  Obesity is believed to increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other ailments.  Only tobacco accounts for more than the 300 thousand deaths a year attributed to obesity.  This same study found that 64.5% of Americans are overweight and 15% of children aged between six and nine are also considered overweight (Raeburn, 2002).  In order to be considered overweight, a child’s Body Mass Index (BMI) must exceed 95% (Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2002).

In addition to obesity, there has also been an increasing concern for the nutritional value of the food ingested by Americans today (Raeburn, 2002).  Published in the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals Report, about half of the children five years and younger do not get enough calcium.  The report also indicated that 56% of boys and 46% of girls between six and 11 also lack enough calcium.  Also children six to 12 were found to only eat half of the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables (Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2002). Not only are nutritionists concerned about children’s physical implications of being overweight, there are some emotional consequences also involved. Overweight children are more likely to have emotional problems such as a low self-esteem because of their appearance (Public Health Association of Australia, 2002).

Health organizations, nutritionists and dietitians have placed most of the blame on advertisements by the food industry (Raeburn, 2002).  They blame these companies for child obesity, lack of nutrition in these products and the physiological concerns of children.  These groups have taken a strong stand against the practice of marketing food to children and challenge the intent of these advertisers.  Many nutritionists feel that it is immoral how the industry advertises unhealthy food products (Nutrition Australia, 1988). In 1998 companies in the United States spent 118 billion dollars on media advertising.  By average that would be five thousand dollars for every person in the country (Moser and Horton, 1999).

The concern over child obesity has become such an international  issue that the World Health Organization is in the process of considering countering strategies against marketing these foods to children (Wentz & Bowes, 2002).  United States President George W. Bush has launched a personal campaign to persuade Americans to keep fit and follow a healthy diet (BBC News, 2002).

The Impact of Television Advertising on Children

Advocates argue that television advertisers are the principal culprits of targeting children with questionable marketing tactics.  Children are exposed to more television advertisements than by any other source.  They cite that food advertising accounts for between 25% and 76% of all advertisements during children’s viewing time (Public Health Association of Australia, 2002).  Television advertising consists of roughly 70% of the total sum of funds spent on advertisements to children in the United States (Beder, 1998).  Television viewing times of children which typically are from 7 to 8 pm and 3 to 6 pm on weekdays and Saturday mornings are saturated with advertisements for low nutrient foods Public Health Association of Australia, 2002).  These commercials are carefully studied for maximum psychological impact on children.  Some commercials take many months to create to achieve these results.  Children are continuously exposed to these commercials to generate interest for the children to pester their parents for the products (Moser and Horton, 1999).  Before children in America reach school age, they will have spent an average of 5 thousand hours in front of the television (Beder, 1998).

Experts believe that children under the age of eight cannot determine if a commercial is making real or implied claims about their product.  They further claim that at that age, children believe nearly all that they hear on television.  Activists also claim that the bombardment of television advertisement for low nutritional foods deprives children of their exercise time. There is also an argument that only on rare occasions will foods that are considered nutritional are advertised to children (Public Health Association of Australia, 2002).

Food and advertising firms have rejected the idea that television ads have a colossal impact on children (Public Health Association of Australia, 2002).  Advertisers also discard the claims that television ads are causing children to consume excessive food and soft drinks (Bachmanit, 2002).

Recently in December 2002, the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) has called for all food advertising during children’s viewing times to be banned (Advertising Education Forum, 2002).  The PHAA believes that children’s eating habits are directly related to protection from disease in adulthood.  They also state that eating patterns in life are established in childhood and that advertisement has a significant influence on these patterns (Public Health Association of Australia, 2002).

This concept is not restricted to Australia alone.  Around the world, various organizations and health experts have been lobbying their governments to establish regulations to food advertisers.  In Italy, a group of opposition members of Parliament has introduced a bill in the Chamber of Deputies which called for a mandate that all radio and television operators abide by a children’s rights policy.  The British Medical Journal has released publications that recommend action against targeting children by food advertisers.  Finland, Norway and Sweden have already imposed strict marketing guidelines (Carter, 1996).  In the United States, the Los Angeles school district has banned the sale of all carbonated soft drinks from their 677 schools (Advertising Education Forum, 2002).

McDonald’s Corporation Case Study

Fast food restaurants have become a popular target of criticism by marketing opponents (Raeburn, 2002).  Studies show that near half of the money spent on food by Americans is for eating out.  This is estimated to generate over 100 billion dollars income each year for restaurants in the United States.  These studies also further conclude that each day at least 25% of America visits a fast-food chain (Appleson, 2003).  Fast food has also seen a rise in distribution in the public school system.  In the mid 1990’s, 13% of schools served fast food in schools.  This has been an issue with nutritionists because the fast food being served lacks the nutritional value that conventional school food does (Raeburn, 2002).

In recent years, The McDonald’s Corporation has been frequently challenged as the leading source of the controversy surrounding marketing food to children (Raeburn, 2002).  The corporation reportedly spends two billion dollars each year on advertising.  The company also targets children by using promotional tools such as toys, school programs, school team sponsorships, and figures such as Ronald McDonald (McSpotlight, n.d.).  McDonald’s also raised an estimated $15-20 million in 2002 to sponsor World Children’s Day.  This is in addition to the 300 million dollars raised to their Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC).  The corporation claims that these funds are to improve the heath of children around the world (McDonald’s Corporation, 2002).

While their marketing techniques are being criticized, it is the lack of nutritional value that has generated most of the concerns.  Fast food rarely meets USDA nutritional guidelines and is high in fats.  Today’s super sized menu items have tripled the amount of calories in an order of french-fries that were ordered in the 1960’s (Raeburn, 2002).  Typically a person could consume 900 calories in the super-sized soda and french-fries alone (Bird, 1998).

McDonald’s has defended these claims by launching a campaign that also uses information from health experts and nutritionist.  McDonald’s has stated that eating habits are just a single element involved in obesity.  They state that additional elements such as genetics, exercise, cultural issues, economic, and over-eating contribute to obesity as well.  The corporation further states, according to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), that it is unhealthy to eliminate an individual’s favorite food from their diet (McDonald’s Corporation, n.d.).  The company further claims, “Many nutrition professionals agree that McDonald’s food can be part of a healthy diet based on the sound nutrition principles of balance, variety and moderation (McDonald’s Corporation, p. 1).  McDonald’s also states that there are heaps of alternative foods found in their menu such as salads (Raeburn, 2002).  According to the fast food company, it has been providing nutritional information on their menu items for over 25 years (McDonald’s Corporation, n.d.).  Under pressure, the company announced in 2002 that it was adding yogurt and a sweetened fruit menu for children (Raeburn, 2002).

Furthermore, McDonald’s has designated a few restaurants to partnership with the Eat Well Play Hard (EWPH) program in New York State.  The goals of the EWPH are to prevent obesity in children and reduce the likelihood of chronic diseases through a proper diet and exercise.    EWPH selected McDonald’s because of their successful marketing strategies to children.  Under a three month promotional period, McDonald’s offered an alternative Happy Meal Plus to the menu that was the same price as the standard Happy Meal.  The Happy Meal Plus contained the same food as the Happy Meal but included a cup of fruit.  The soda was replaced by the choice of a low-fat milk, low-fat chocolate milk or low-fat frozen yogurt parfait.  The conventional Happy Meal toy was replaced with an item that would bring about a child to do physical activity such as a jump rope, Frisbee, or beach ball.  Surveys given to the customers indicated that 90% thought that the Happy Meal Plus was pleasant and would purchase it again (Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2002).

A landmark lawsuit filed against McDonald’s was dismissed in a US District Court in January 2003 (Appleson, 2003).    A lawyer was suing on behalf of several teens that blame their obesity on food consumed from the franchise.  The lawsuit further claimed that the company deliberately misled customers in regards to the nutritional value of their foods and did not warn customers of the health risks from eating them (BBC News, 2002).  One of the plaintiffs was a 400 pound 15 year old boy that testified that he obtained diabetes and this weight gain because of the restaurant chain.  The boy claimed that he ate at McDonald’s everyday since he was six (Appleson, 2003).    His mother claimed that she had always believed that McDonald’s fast food was healthy for her son (BBC News, 2002).

The lawyer for McDonald’s claimed that the suit should be considered frivolous.  He pointed out that McDonald’s has been providing data on their menu items to the public for many years.  The lawyer went on to say that the fast food giant has nothing to hide and the public has a full understanding of the nutritional value of fast food (BBC News, 2002).  The judge agreed with McDonald’s on these points and ruled that he did not find evidence that the company was intentionally misleading customers (Appleson, 2003).

Although the judge dismissed the case, he scolded the company on their cooking and processing methods.  He further warned McDonald’s the plaintiffs could re-file their case if evidence can be obtained regarding the processing methods of their products (Appleson, 2003).  Future lawsuits are expected and other fast food chains are concerned that if a lawsuit against McDonald’s similar to this is successful that they might also be held liable in future cases (BBC News, 2002).  Other experts believe that the fast food companies should be partially held accountable for obesity and diabetes in the same fashion that cigarette companies were to nicotine addiction and lung cancer (Bird, 1998).  Many nutritionists and attorneys believe that food companies should be held responsible for some of the estimated 117 billion dollars spent on obesity related illnesses (Raeburn, 2002).

In response to prevent a rash of lawsuits, the US Congress has introduced the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act.  This legislation would limit lawsuits against restaurant chains to cases where the companies fail to meet regulatory requirements (Supermarket Guru, 2003).


The issues of marketing to children by the food industry have legitimate arguments on both sides.  Nutritionists and heath experts have been engineering increasingly more relevant information to support their claims.  These groups have made it clear to the food industry that they will not tolerate health being traded for profits.  On the other side, marketers have responded by stating that they are merely giving the kids what they want to stay competitive.

As this issue comes into the forefront of American politics, the nation may see a wave of public opinion that will swell against companies like McDonald’s.  This may be in similar fashion as the public took against the tobacco company.  Eventually companies like McDonald’s may be held liable for some of children’s health issues such as obesity and diabetes.  Food marketers may have to find a balance between attaining good profits and producing healthy food for children.  This may be their only escape to avoid a massive impact of multi-million dollar lawsuits.

While the two parties disagree on many issues, they both agree that in addition to a healthy diet, children should exercise daily to prevent obesity and other health problems.  For the sake of the nation’s children, food producers should have an obligation to approaching this issue with integrity and honorable intentions.


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©2018 Michael A. Hartmann

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