Can Parents Compete With Clever Food Marketing Directed at Kids?

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Instead of banning child-directed advertising, it might be worth the effort to simply encourage the promotion of healthy food choices to kids

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Parents may lament the fact that junk food packaging is so often adorned with well-loved cartoon characters while fruits and veggie packages are generally dull. But parents can help overcome this clever marketing, according to a new study -- although it will take some work.

The researchers behind the study had 75 children, ages 3-5, watch cartoons which were interrupted by ads either for French fries or apples and dipping sauce. They were then allowed to choose coupons for either of the two foods -- but half of the parents in each group remained neutral with the other half encouraged the kids to make the healthy choice.

If parents said nothing, about 71 percent of the children who had watched French fry ads chose that coupon. But when parents urged their kids to make the healthy choice, only 55 percent of the kids chose French fries. For the kids who had seen the apples and dipping sauce ad, only 46 percent made the unhealthy French fry choice when the parents remained neutral.

This difference in and of itself underlines the power of advertising. But when the parents encouraged them to go for the apples, only 33 percent of them opted for the fries.

While there's a clear trend in the results of the study, it wasn't as great as had been expected. Lead author Christopher Ferguson says, "Parental encouragement to eat healthy was somewhat able to help undo the message of commercials, although the effects of parents were smaller than we had anticipated."

But small or not, the effect was there, so parents should not feel that they don't play an important role in their kids' food choices. It's not easy to compete with Scooby Doo packaging, but, as Ferguson says, "parents are not powerless."

The authors point out that there's been some talk of banning child-directed advertising, but a better way might be simply to encourage advocates, food producers, and politicians to focus on the other end of the equation -- ways of promoting healthy food choices to kids as well. Ferguson underlines that "[a]dvertisement effects can work both for and against healthy eating."

The study is published online ahead of print in The Journal of Pediatrics. Dr. Ferguson is a researcher at Texas A&M International University.

Image: Stu_Spivack/Flickr.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com.

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Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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