I was shocked the first time my daughter parroted a TV commercial back to me; she was two and a half! I was amazed that the marketing was able to hit its mark and make an impression on such a young child. Here I was, unsuccessfully trying to get her to remember the ABC song, yet Kellogg's had no problem getting her to both sing and quote their commercial. It was shocking.
A study from Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that the least healthy breakfast cereals are the most aggressively marketed cereals. The study also showed that cereal companies are purposely targeting children (as young as age two) with these commercials.
Many companies are also using online marketing in the form of cereal websites and "advergames." For example, General Mills' Website Millsberry.com averages 767,000 unique young visitors a month; each visitor remains on the website for about 24 minutes each visit.
General Mills has the distinction of marketing to kids more than any of its competitors.
How do companies decide which cereals to market to our kids? It seems that they simply choose the least healthy cereals and make them "kid" cereals. This study showed that cereals marketed to kids have 85 percent more sugar, 65 percent less fiber, and 60 percent more sodium than cereals marketed to adults.
Cereal companies spend nearly $156 million annually on kid-friendly TV commercials for kids. Why do companies spend so much money on child targeted advertising? Because it works! These commercials prompt our kids to crave these unhealthy items. And with the average child seeing 40,000 commercials a year, mostly for high-fat, high-calorie foods, that's a lot of cravings!
When was the last time you remember seeing a commercial for a fruit or a vegetable? These healthy foods are rarely promoted on TV because they are not branded items and don't turn out the same profits.
What can parents do to protect their kids? As always, it starts with communication. Sit down with your child and talk about the commercials. Explain to your kids that the purpose of the commercial is to get them to spend money. Ask them if they think there might be some important information that the advertiser is leaving out. "Do you think this is a healthy cereal? Why do you think the commercial doesn't mention anything about how much sugar is in this cereal? Can you think of other cereals that are healthier?"
You can also discuss the use of cartoon characters. "Why do you think the company chose a cartoon bear to sell this cereal? Does it have anything to do with the cereal or is it just a way to get kids to watch the commercial?"
Most kids, even the younger ones, can be taught to see commercials for what they truly are.
The most successful way to avoid this problem, however, is to limit the amount of time your children spend watching television and playing computer and video games. Companies are even starting to advertise there, as well. It is possible that as your child is playing a beloved game, an advertisement is flashing before his eyes. So limit the exposure to this noise.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends fewer than two hours of TV and computer/video games per day. Parents seem to believe that their children will not agree to these limits but elementary and middle school children can usually be persuaded to cut down on TV, especially when parents give them ideas for other fun activities to do instead. Sit down with your child and brainstorm all the fun things they can do that don't involve electronics.
Food companies and advertising executives spend large amounts of time and money trying to control your child's cravings. Fight back with communication, education and redirection. Parents can (and should) be the ones with the most influence over their young children.
Follow Joanna Dolgoff, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joannadolgoffmd