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Karen Showalter's picture
Moms know it’s annoying to see our kids’ favorite characters plastered on boxes of junk food, placed oh-so-conveniently at eye level in the supermarket. And frustrating to see junk food companies sneaking onto everything from scoreboards to schools supplies. Makes me feel a little like this:

Hands up if you've made this face at the grocery store. Or let's be honest: in almost ANY check-out line with your kids. I can't even buy glue in a craft store without being forced to walk past an aisle of junk, placed at my kids' eye level, on my way to check out.

And at first glance, that’s where it seems to end. It’s annoying. Parents think that we should just do our job and say no. Put our foot down, and teach our kids good behaviors. 

I get it. As parents, we think we have the primary influence over our kids. And it’s our responsibility to raise them right. That’s all true!
But parents: let’s be fair and honest. That’s not where it ends. The food and beverage industry spends $2 billion/year marketing products to kids. Believing that any amount of “saying no” can counteract the tidalwave of marketing our kids experience is, well, an exercise in self-abuse. Don't we have enough going on, without worrying about companies sneakily trying to reach our kids?

Me pushing back on the marketing targeting my kid. At least I'm getting some cardio in?

But as parents we DO have the power to tell companies to stop. Check out these these terrifying facts about junk food marketing to kids.

I’m good, but I’m no superhero. I just don’t have the ability to see through school walls, predict the future when it comes to product displays in the supermarket, or leap in front of that SMS message my son gets through his phone. Do any of us? Of course not. Check out this list of the many ways junk food companies sneak into schools from Upstream Public Health:
Vending machine labeling (although they now can’t sell “regular” soda, then can still feature images of it on the machine itself); Scoreboards and other school signage; Benefit nights at restaurants; Donated classroom materials, such as math or reading worksheets; Book covers; company-sponsored “Bucks for Books” programs; Box Tops for Education / Labels for Education; Fundraiser sale items:  cookie dough, pizza, etc.; Branded disposable cups in cafeterias or sports; Special event signage (banners); Athletic uniforms or special event t-shirts; Channel One TV; “Good Job” stickers with corporate logos; Food coupons as discretionary awards from staff. (1) 

I can NOT do this. Seriously. I've tried. Other things I cannot do: predict and stop the sneaky ads my kid gets through his phone, in video games and commercials, etc.   

To make it worse, companies target our kids with messaging specific to their interests and growing minds. Well, that seems to make sense, right? Companies try to reach me with ads specific to my being a mom, for example. But what if a company targets your kids because they know they’re vulnerable to that teenage need to “fit in”? Feels a whole lot more insidious, right? Two ways this plays out: 
Young kids: character endorsements. 
Younger kids like mine love their little characters, like Spongebob or Dora. Yet these same characters pop up on all sorts of junk food products that aren’t good for my children, often in sneaky ways like at eye-level at the supermarket. Making it even worse, research shows it’s difficult for young children to even tell the difference between ads and programs when watching television shows. (2). Their brains just don’t get it. Those little characters are starting to feel a whole lot less fun. 
Older kids: need to fit in. 
Older kids experience a different kind of attack. Kids over the age of 14 might understand what advertising is, but still be lured by it’s siren song of “fitting in”. Says the Berkeley Media Studies Group:
When these ads target young people, they reach them at a time when their identity is susceptible to outside influences, including powerful media imagery. This period of upheaval during adolescence is especially important when it comes to marketing messages, as youth from communities of color often use consumption as a means to counteract experiences of social and economic marginalization. This means that target marketing presents a serious challenge to youth: not only do marketers promote unhealthy foods, but they also exploit symbols of cultural relevance, even affecting young people's developing identities to do so. (3) 

Let me get this straight: companies actually play on the insecurities of my kids to sell them junk? Not ok. 

Communities of color are truly facing a health crisis when it comes to obesity. Youth of color experience higher rates of obesity than their white counterparts. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 25 percent of Black girls ages six to eleven are overweight or obese. (4)
Yet research shows that lower income and Black children were exposed to “significantly higher” levels of food and beverage ads, for fast food restaurants and sugar-sweetened beverages in particular. For example, with each 10% increase in the proportion of black children in a specific market, ads for sugary drinks went up 23%, and ads for fast-food restaurants went up 17%. (5)
This kind of targeted marketing uses culturally relevant material to really stick. As expert Sonya Grier notes
"Advertisers use cues such as asethnic symbols, linguistic styles, and music to link cultural values, beliefs and norms with the consumption of specific food products." (6)
So why is this a problem? Shouldn't companies be using information about us to push their products, we might ask? Not so fast. This kind of targeted marketing aggressively promotes unhealthy foods to communities suffering most from obesity, all in the name of the almighty dollar. Not to mention perpetuating stereotypes and exploiting cultural identities. (7) 

Things are legit getting scary.

We're facing a national crisis when it comes to our kids health. Consider these facts:
  • One in three children in the US is overweight or obese. (8) 
  • Obesity rates in the US have doubled since 1970. (9)
  • Healthcare costs related to obesity exceed $100 billion annually. (10)
  • Twenty-seven percent of young people are too overweight to serve in the military. (11)
And the health impacts of junk food are astounding. Sugar-sweetened beverages like soda are the single largest source of added sugar in children’s diets. And, they are the third highest source of kids’ calories overall. (12) Drinking just one additional sugary drink every day increases a child’s odds of becoming obese. (13)

If Morgan's concerned, you know we're in trouble.

We've achieved some inspiring victories over the past few years, and momentum is growing for curbing marketing to kids. Get inspired by these recent mom victories!
  • This spring, both Wendy's and Burger King removed soda as a default beverage in kids' meals, after being pressured from tens of thousands of moms.
  • Moms submitted thousands of comments in support of limiting junk food marketing in schools, through the updates to the Local School Wellness Policies last year.

And our work continues, as we call on both Nickelodeon and the food and beverage industry more broadly to limit junk food marketing to our kids. 

We need all hands on deck. Moms: we need to keep it up. Join us in demanding companies stop trying to undermine the good practices we're working so hard to teach our kids. Join us for the long haul by signing up for the Good Food Force! You'll get special updates, invitations to online events, and have the chance to connect with other food activists making a difference at the local level. Because, moms ...  


(2) The Impact of Food Advertising on Childhood Obesity. The American Psychological Association. Accessed on 4/19/2014
(4) Source: Ogden, Cynthia Ph.D., and Carroll, Margare, M.S.P.H. NCHS Health E-Stat: Prevalence of Obesity Among Children and Adolescents: United States, Trends 1963-1965 Through 2007-2008. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from
(5) Bridging the Gap:
(6) Grier, Sonya. 2009. African American & Hispanic Youth Vulnerability to Target Marketing: Implications for Understanding the Effects of Digital Marketing. The Second NPLAN/BMSG Meeting on Digital Marketing to Children.
(7) Bridging the Gap:
(8) American Heart Association. (Updated 2014, January 28). Overweight in Children. Retrieved from
(10) Yale Rudd Center:
(11) Mission Readiness:
(12) Reedy, Jill, PhD, MPH, RD; Krebs-Smith, Susan M., PhD, MPH, RD. Dietary Sources of Energy, Solid Fats, and Added Sugars among Children and Adolescents in the United States. American Dietetic Association.
(13) Ludwig DS, Peterson KE, Gortmaker SL. Relation between consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and childhood obesity: a prospective, observational analysis. Lancet. 2001;357:505-8.


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