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Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?
phones—and in many different venues—homes, schools, child-care settings, grocery stores, shopping malls, theaters, sporting events, and even airports. Virtually all children ages 2–18 years now live in households with a television, and more than half of today’s children and youth report that their families have no rules for television viewing. Children and youth under the age of 18 years comprise 20 percent of those using the Internet. Myriad marketing approaches are now available, and targeted and integrated marketing has become more prevalent.
With new outlets, attractions, and tools, children and youth represent a powerful demographic force. Collectively, children and youth spend more than $200 billion annually, and they influence many food and beverage purchases beyond those they make directly. Although children’s choices are strongly influenced by their parents and siblings, they are increasingly making decisions at younger ages in the marketplace, either in ways that are independent of parental guidance, or as agents influencing the choices and purchasing decisions of their parents and caregivers. Of the various items that children and youth purchase and influence, food and beverages—particularly candy, carbonated soft drinks, and salty snacks—consistently represent the leading categories.
An important issue in discussions about the influence of food and beverage advertising and marketing reaching children and youth relates to the stages of discernment. Before a certain age, children lack the defenses, or skills, to discriminate commercial from noncommercial content, or to attribute persuasive intent to advertising. Children generally develop these skills at about age 8 years, but children as old as 11 years may not activate their defenses unless explicitly cued to do so. Concern about young children’s limited ability to comprehend the nature and purpose of advertising, and about the appropriateness or impact of food marketing to which younger children might be exposed, led to a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rulemaking process in the late 1970s on the question of whether advertising to young children should be restricted or banned as a protective measure. Congress eventually intervened, and the FTC terminated the rulemaking in 1981.
The question persists, however, about the effects of advertising exposure on children, and it has been deepened and broadened by a developing appreciation of the influence of environmental signals on personal behaviors, regardless of age; by the expansion and the nature of youth and child-oriented food and beverage products in the marketplace; by the dramatic augmentation of strategic tools and vehicles for marketing activities; and, in particular, by concern about the relation of the marketing environment, among the multiple influences, to the rapid growth of childhood obesity in the United States.
This concern is not unique to the United States. In addition to the