Marketing of Sugary Drinks to Kids and Teens: As Strong as Ever

In the most extensive analysis of the marketing of sugary drinks to kids ever conducted, the Rudd Center has uncovered chilling details


Today's children will be the first generation in the history of the country to lead shorter lives than their parents did. There are several contributors to this dim picture, but obesity leads the list.

Many things are being done to help prevent obesity in children and teens. One of the most visible is the effort by cities, states, and even entire countries to wage war on beverages with added sugar. What was once a simple landscape with only a few flagship beverages like Coke, Pepsi, and 7 Up has morphed into entire new categories of drinks with sugar -- sweetened teas, vitamin waters, sports drinks, and energy drinks are examples. Collectively, these beverages are referred to as soda, soft drinks, pop, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sugary drinks -- all terms referring to drinks high in sugar and containing little or no nutrition. In the 1990s, consumption of sugary drinks overtook milk consumption in the U.S., a trend that makes health experts cringe.

There is a long list of reasons why these beverages are bad actors:

  • They are the single greatest source of added sugar in the American diet and add little or no nutrition.
  • The body does not seem to recognize calories very well when they are delivered in liquids, hence sugary drinks appear to fool the body's feelings of being full.
  • There is very clear evidence linking consumption of these beverages with elevated risk for obesity and diabetes.
  • There is massive marketing.

The health consequences of consuming sugary drinks are well known. It is not surprising, therefore, that groups such as the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and other groups have said that consumption is too high and needs to come down.

What has been missing from this picture is a detailed analysis of how the industry markets these products to the most vulnerable segment of our population: children. It is important to know this in order to help establish government policies on whether children should be protected from this influence, and also test whether the industry is holding true to its promises to market less to this age group.

The beverage industry, dominated by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, is represented by a trade association called the American Beverage Association (ABA). The beverage companies have made a number of promises that it will market less to children. Coca-Cola, for example, claims they "...will not place any of [their] brands' marketing in television, radio, and print programming that is primarily directed to children under the age of 12..." Some industry critics believe that the chief aim of such promises is to court public trust and to convince legislators that government intervention is not necessary. Objective information is needed to see whether industry promises are kept and whether, in fact, children are exposed to less marketing of products that may cause harm.

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Kelly Brownell is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Yale University, where he is also a professor of epidemiology and public health and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. More

Kelly Brownell is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Yale University, where he is also a professor of epidemiology and public health and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. In 2006 Time magazine listed Dr. Brownell among “The World’s 100 Most Influential People” in its special Time 100 issue featuring those “whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world.”

Dr. Brownell was elected to membership in the Institute of Medicine in 2006 and has served as president of several national organizations, including the Society of Behavioral Medicine, Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy, and the Division of Health Psychology of the American Psychological Association. He has received numerous awards and honors for his work, including the James McKeen Cattell Award from the New York Academy of Sciences, the award for Outstanding Contribution to Health Psychology from the American Psychological Association, the Distinguished Alumni Award from Purdue University, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from Rutgers University. He has served in a number of leadership roles at Yale including Master of Silliman College and Chair of the Department of Psychology from 2003 to 2006.

He has published 14 books and more than 300 scientific articles and chapters. One book received the Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Book from the American Library Association, and his paper on "Understanding and Preventing Relapse," published in the American Psychologist, was listed as one of the most frequently cited papers in psychology.

In his popular book Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America’s Obesity Crisis & What We Can Do About It, he and co-author Katherine Battle outline bold public policy initiatives for reversing the obesity epidemic and describe steps individuals can take to help safeguard their own and their families’ health in a culture that feeds its pets better than its children and makes it nearly impossible for the poor to be healthy.

Dr. Brownell has advised members of congress, governors, world health and nutrition organizations, and media leaders on issues of nutrition, obesity, and public policy. He was cited as a “moral entrepreneur” with special influence on public discourse in a history of the obesity field and was cited by Time as a leading “warrior” in the area of nutrition and public policy.

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