Food Marketing to Children: It's Not Just TV Commercials

Families, Food and Fitness November 18, 2009 Print Friendly and PDF

Many advertisements are specifically targeted to children. Picture your child’s favorite cereal or packages of cookies and snacks that line the grocery store aisles. Think of the funny cartoon characters that are on the boxes. These friendly characters are not selling apples and whole wheat bread. Instead of pushing carrots, yogurt, milk, and fruits and vegetables, many more advertisements and commercials are for sugar cereals, cookies, fruit drinks (not juice), and snack bars. What's being advertised are processed food products, many of which aren’t good for children. These foods may actually be contributing to childhood obesity.

child covering ears

The companies that sell food to children spend approximately $10 billion each year to reach children through multiple types of media. Television, radio, print, and the Internet are all used to target messages to children.

  • Does It Work?

It does work. Over and over, researchers find that advertising to children is related to the choices children make and the requests they make from their parents. Children under the age of 8 don’t understand that advertisers want to sell a product. It is difficult for young children to understand the difference between a commercial on television and the program. They don’t know that when they see a picture of their favorite cartoon character, it is there to attract them to a product. Grocery stores are great at placing products at eye level that are being marketed to children. The food industry attracts children by offering toys or gifts (called “premiums”), and the parents buy the product because children are very persistent about asking. Fast food restaurants offer a "free" toy with a kid's meal often tied in with a popular TV show, movie, or character.

As a parent, you can protect your child from marketing efforts by reducing the amount of screen time - TV, Internet, video games, DVDs - your child is exposed to. If children see an advertisement on TV or the Internet, they will be more likely to ask you for the product that is being advertised. Watch advertising with your child. Teach your child to be critical of what is marketed on television and the Internet. And remember, you are the parent. Just say no, explain why, and help your children be media savvy.


Vandewater, W.A., & Cummings, H.M. 2008. Media use and childhood obesity. In Calvert, S.L., & Wilson, B.J., eds. The Handbook of Children, Media, and Development. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Wartella, E., & Robb, M. 2008. Historical and recurring concerns about children’s use of the mass media. In Calvert, S.L., & Wilson, B.J., eds. The Handbook of Children, Media, and Development. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Lewin, A., Lindstrom, L., & Nestle, M. 2006. Food industry promises to address childhood obesity: Preliminary evaluation. Journal of Public Health Policy 27:327-348.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.