How to watch a food commercial with your child

How to watch a food commercial with your childChildren ages 2 – 7 see an average of 12 food ads per day, or 4,400 in a year. Older children (8 – 12) see almost double that amount. Nearly half of all ads shown during children’s programming are for food. These are figures from a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which reports that “34% [of these ads] are for candy and snacks, 28% are for cereal, and 10% are for fast food.”

As parents already know, these ads work. Children request advertised food more often, and they even preferred the taste of branded food in an experiment that used identical foods, one sample with a fast food label and one without.

Even with the most rigorous monitoring of media content, kids are bound to see food ads sooner or later. How can parents help their children view these ads critically?

Watch the ads together, and talk about them. The simple act of ‘co-viewing’ and talking about the ads encourages children to engage with the ads rather than passively ‘consume’ them. So what should you say? Here are some suggestions to get a conversation started.

Ask how the ads make the food look appealing. Children might need some prompting on this question, depending on their age. If it’s an animated ad, a cereal might be made to look ‘magical,’ as it can fly or sparkle. In an ad for Lunchables, the child eating the product might be portrayed as especially popular among peers. In a fast food ad, everyone might be shown having a good time and laughing. Encourage children to identify ways the ads make the food look ‘cool.’

Ask how the food looks in real life. This is especially useful with regard to fast food ads, which feature styled food that is wearing a lot of ‘makeup.’ If the child has ever ordered that food in a restaurant, s/he can see that it doesn’t look the same as it does in the ad. Encourage children to compare the two, as it helps them recognize that commercials are not necessarily realistic.

Ask what’s in the food. This is an ongoing question, one that is best asked later on in the kitchen, or even the grocery store. Read nutrition labels for advertised foods with children, and help them understand what’s in it.

The key to watching food commercials with children is to encourage them to ask questions, rather than giving them a ‘lecture’ or telling them what’s good or bad. When you encourage them to view an ad critically, you’re helping them to develop a skill they can apply to other ads in the future.


Advertising, children, and ‘pester power’

I just returned from a trip to Norway, which I learned is one of only three countries/provinces – the other two are Sweden and Québec – that have made advertising to children under age 12 illegal. Advertising to this age group is regulated elsewhere in the world, but many of these regulations are industry-directed. In other words, advertisers pledge to follow particular guidelines to avoid government scrutiny of their practices. Whether these guidelines actually accomplish their stated goals is a topic of much debate.

Screen shot of McDonald's TV commercial with SmurfsIt’s rather surprising that companies spend so much time and money advertising to children – around $14 billion annually in North America alone. Most children don’t have the power to purchase things on their own, so why put so much effort into persuading them?

There are two primary reasons advertisers see children as valuable audiences for their marketing messages:

Brand loyalty can be established at an early age, and if it’s successful a company could have a customer for life. Why do banks give lollipops to kids? Why do some grocery stores have mini shopping carts for kids, or race-car additions to regular carts? They’re trying to make parents’ lives easier, certainly, but they’re also trying to encourage children to associate their brand with enjoyable things and experiences. Advertising plays a big part in establishing that association.

‘Pester power’ is an industry term used to describe the influence children have on parents and guardians. It’s a no-brainer for any parent who has witnessed a meltdown in the cereal aisle of a grocery store. Often the easiest way to stop a temper tantrum is by giving in and buying the desired product. In North America, children influence 25 to 40 percent of household purchases, worth $170 billion annually.

Next week, I’ll give some advice on how to watch a food commercial with your child, while encouraging her/him to view it critically.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear about your experiences. What advertising seems most effective with regard to your child(ren)? How do they respond to such ads?

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