“Consuming Kids” Reveals Shocking Tactics Used to Manipulate Your Children’s Preferences and Habits

Story at-a-glance -

  • America’s 52 million kids under the age of 12 represent one of the most powerful markets for American businesses, influencing adult spending worth $700 billion a year
  • The documentary Consuming Kids reveals the shrewd practices of the multi-billion dollar marketing machine designed to turn your kids into loyal, lifelong consumers who will also influence how the entire family spends its money
  • Before deregulating children’s TV marketing, children’s spending rose an average of four percent per year. After deregulation, children’s spending skyrocketed to 35 percent per year
  • Children age 2-11 now see an average of more than 10 television food ads per day. Ninety-eight percent of food advertisements viewed by children are for products that are high in fat, sugar or sodium. Most are also low in fiber
  • A classic example of this deceptive manipulation is Coca-Cola’s new ad campaign which focuses on the mistaken belief that beating obesity is a matter of counting calories, even though this theory has been found to be patently false

By Dr. Mercola

The United States now has 52 million children under the age of 12, and for American businesses, these kids represent one of the most powerful demographics to be captured.

Not only do children themselves spend a total of $40 billion a year on snacks, toys and electronics, using money given to them by their parents or family members, children also exert a powerful influence on their parents' spending.

Children under 12 influence adult spending worth a staggering $700 billion a year, which equates to the combined economy of 115 of the world's poorest countries.

The documentary Consuming Kids reveals the shrewd practices of the multi-billion dollar marketing machine that has one sole purpose: to turn your kids into loyal, lifelong consumers who will also influence how the entire family spends its money.

As summarized by Top Documentary Films1 :

"Drawing on the insights of health care professionals, children's advocates, and industry insiders, the film focuses on the explosive growth of child marketing in the wake of deregulation, showing how youth marketers have used the latest advances in psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience to transform American children into one of the most powerful and profitable consumer demographics in the world.

Consuming Kids pushes back against the wholesale commercialization of childhood, raising urgent questions about the ethics of children's marketing and its impact on the health and well-being of kids."

The Rise of Full Immersion Stealth Marketing

Marketing to children has turned into a science in its own right. For example, the film reveals how "the nag factor" has been studied to the point that marketers can be advised on "what kind of tantrums work better."

Yes, ads are actually designed to increase the number of times your child will keep asking you for the product—i.e. drive you completely batty and/or embarrass you in public until you give in just to make it stop.

With advances in technology, the avenues for marketing have grown exponentially over the past 30 years. It is no longer restricted to TV ads. Kids are now exposed to clever marketing via brand licensing, product placement, schools, stealth marketing, viral marketing, DVD's, games, internet...

There are so many ways to reach children today that there's a brand in front of your child's face nearly every moment of every day.

As mentioned in the film, what we're seeing is a rise of "360 degree immersive marketing," designed to convince children that life is about buying and "getting." It's about turning children into loyal lifelong consumers.

Deregulation Unleashed an Unstoppable 'Beast' Set on Devouring Your Kids

In the late 1970's, in the wake of rising concerns about sugary cereals and children's inability to understand the intent of advertising, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) tried to ban all ads aimed at kids below the age of eight. After all, a young child cannot understand that an ad is not an impartial infomercial that tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth... For this reason, advertising aimed at children is grossly underhanded, if not outright immoral.

Alas, Big Business stepped in and convinced Congress to block such attempts. Instead of banning advertising to children, Congress passed "The FTC Improvement Act," which strips the FTC of the power and authority to regulate marketing to children. The final blow came in 1984, when the entire industry was deregulated.

Before deregulating children's TV marketing, children's spending had risen at a modest four percent per year. After deregulation, children's spending skyrocketed to 35 percent per year, from $4.2 billion a year in 1984 to $40 billion a year today—an 852 percent increase in less than three decades.

According to a recent report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM)2, children age 2-11 now see an average of more than 10 television food ads per day. Nearly all (98 percent) of food advertisements viewed by children are for products that are high in fat, sugar or sodium. Most (79 percent) are low in fiber3. According to the IOM:

"The marketing of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages is linked to overweight and obesity. A 2006 IOM report provided evidence that television advertising influences the food and beverage preferences, requests, and short-term consumption of children."

Indeed, even most toddlers recognize the sign of McDonald's "golden arches" long before they are speaking in full sentences, and TV ads "teach" them from that early age that French fries, chicken fingers and soda is a healthy nutritious meal... While it's easy to say it's a parent's job to teach their children the facts, this is certainly made difficult when each and every day you're competing against dozens of powerfully conflicting messages from the best PR machine money can buy.

There's no doubt that junk food advertising works, and works long-term.

Research4 shows when parents fed their preschool-aged children junk foods high in sugar, salt and unhealthy fats, it had a lasting impact on their taste preferences. All of the children tested showed preferences for junk foods, and all (even those who were just three years old!) were also able to recognize some soda, fast food and junk food brands. The researchers concluded what you probably already suspect: kids who were exposed to junk food, soda and fast food, via advertising and also because their parents fed them these foods, learned to recognize and prefer these foods over healthier choices.

This does have an impact on their health, as nutrients from quality foods are critical in helping your child reach his or her fullest potential. One study5 from British researchers revealed that kids who ate a predominantly processed food diet at age 3 had lower IQ scores at age 8.5. For each measured increase in processed foods, participants had a 1.67-point decrease in IQ. As you might suspect, the opposite also held true, with those eating healthier diets experiencing higher IQ levels. For each measured increase in dietary score, which meant the child was eating more fruits and vegetables for instance, there was a 1.2-point increase in IQ.

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Coca-Cola's Misguided Advice to Help You Tackle Obesity

A perfect example of what we're talking about here is Coca-Cola's new ad campaign, which focuses on the mistaken belief that beating obesity is a matter of counting calories. This theory has been found to be patently false. In short, you do not get fat because you eat too many calories and don't exercise enough, even though that's exactly what Coca-Cola will again instill into your children.

It's important to understand that you get fat because you eat the wrong kind of calories. At the end of the day, your consumption of carbohydrates, whether in the form of grains and sugars (especially fructose), will determine whether or not you're able to manage your weight and maintain optimal health. This is because these types of carbs (fructose and grains) affect the hormone insulin, which is a very potent fat regulator. Fats and proteins affect insulin to a far lesser degree. Kudos to The Atlantic6 for calling Coca-Cola on its misleading tactics in its article titled, Coke's Unconscionable New Ad:

"Coca-Cola's latest attempt to position itself against the rising tide of concern about the role of sodas in the obesity epidemic is unconscionable, because of this statement: 'All calories count. No matter where they come from including Coca-Cola and everything else with calories.'

For Coca-Cola to suggest that all calories are equal flies in the face of reality as best as we can determine it... Coca-Cola wants us to ignore the considerable research confirming that sugary soda is a major contributor to obesity, and that it has no nutritional value... Coca-Cola could use its considerable advertising muscle to promote healthy exercise, yes, but when it does so as a ploy to confuse the public about the dangers of its products, that's not a public service, that's unethical."

Remember, each can of Coke contains about 35 grams of sugar, which alone exceeds your daily recommended intake of fructose. Ideally, you'll want to keep your fructose intake below 25 grams a day, or 15 grams if you are overweight, or have heart disease, diabetes, or any other disease stemming from insulin resistance.

I cannot think of any instance where you might need a soda in order to maintain correct "energy balance." You can achieve optimal health without any added sugar or artificial sweeteners. In fact, if you want to understand energy balance, read up on how to become fat adapted rather than being a sugar burner. This requires cutting out virtually all added sugars.  

Still, Coca-Cola's vehement refusal to accept responsibility for leading you astray does not surprise me. Just take a look at the history of Coca-Cola's advertising, and you'll quickly realize that this leopard is not about to change its spots anytime soon. Two sites offering this history lesson include Arandilla's "Coca-Cola Advertising Through the Years" blog7, and NPR's blog page8, "Vigor, Brain Power and Other Health Claims From Coke's Advertising Past."

Why Calorie Counting Doesn't Work

Dr. Robert Lustig, an expert on the metabolic fate of sugar, explains that fructose is "isocaloric but not isometabolic." This means you can have the same amount of calories from fructose or glucose, fructose and protein, or fructose and fat, but the metabolic effect will be entirely different despite the identical calorie count. This is a crucial point that must be understood.

Fructose is in fact far worse than other carbs because the vast majority of it converts directly to FAT, both in your fatty tissues, and in your liver. And this is why counting calories does not work... As long as you keep eating fructose and grains, you're programming your body to create and store fat.

Furthermore, research by Dr. Richard Johnson, chief of the Division of Renal Diseases and Hypertension at the University of Colorado and author of The Sugar Fix and The Fat Switch, demonstrates that large portions of food and too little exercise are NOT solely responsible for why you are gaining weight. Rather it's fructose-containing sugars that cause obesity—not by calories, but by turning on your "fat switch," a powerful biological adaptation that causes cells to accumulate fat in anticipation of scarcity (or hibernation). According to Dr. Johnson, based on his decades of research:

"Those of us who are obese eat more because of a faulty 'switch' and exercise less because of a low energy state. If you can learn how to control the specific 'switch' located in the powerhouse of each of your cells – the mitochondria – you hold the key to fighting obesity."

There is actually some encouraging news in this mess. According to Beverage Digest, soda consumption in the US has been on a steady decline since 19989. A recent article in The Atlantic10 shows consumption of soda "in freefall," with US consumption having declined by 40 percent since 2003. Unfortunately, many are simply switching to zero calorie or low-cal beverages, which Coca-Cola is now trying to boost, and quite frankly, if I had to choose between these two evils, I'd choose regular soda, as artificial sweeteners are likely even worse for your long-term health. In fact, artificial sweeteners have been shown to produce even MORE weight gain than regular sugar and even high fructose corn syrup!

Help Fight Back Against Predatory Marketing to Kids

Perhaps one of the most powerful scientific discoveries to emerge in the past several years is that the old adage "a calorie is a calorie" is patently false. Furthermore, the idea that in order to lose weight all you have to do is expend more calories than you consume is also false... The research clearly demonstrates that even if you control the number of calories you eat, if those calories come from fructose, you are at increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome, or prediabetes, which includes insulin resistance, fatty liver, high blood pressure and high triglycerides.

In short, avoiding fructose in all its forms, along with other sugars, is imperative in order to avoid "flipping the fat switch" that will trigger your body to accumulate excess fat. So please, do yourself and your family a huge favor, and don't allow yourself to get swept up in Coca-Cola's multi-million dollar ad extravaganza. The entire campaign is based on flawed, inaccurate, misleading, and patently false conventions of thinking.

As for all the other marketing, which runs the gamut from toys to clothing brands, electronics, and even cars and financial services, the best defense is perhaps to be aware that it's happening. To combat the influence of marketing of all kinds, I'd advise you to limit the amount of time your child spends watching TV and surfing the web. Children under the age of three should not be watching any TV at all, as this is a crucial time of rapid brain development in which your child's brain is shaped in response to whatever they're exposed to.

Unfortunately, marketing is everywhere, and you cannot insulate your child from all of it all of the time. However, in terms of mental and physical health, junk food ads are among the most harmful, and here you can lend your support for change.

The Prevention Institute's "We're Not Buying It" campaign11 is petitioning President Obama to put voluntary, science-based nutrition guidelines into place for companies that market foods to kids. You can sign this petition now, but I urge you to go a step further and stop supporting the companies that are marketing junk foods to your children today.

Ideally, you and your family will want to vote with your pocketbook and avoid as much processed food as possible and use unprocessed raw, organic and/or locally grown foods as much as possible.

If you and your kids are absolutely hooked on fast food and other processed foods, you're going to need some help and most likely some support from friends and family. Besides surrounding yourself with supportive, like-minded people, you can also review my article "How to Wean Yourself Off Processed Foods in 7 Steps" or read the book I wrote on the subject, called Generation XL: Raising Healthy, Intelligent Kids in a High-Tech, Junk-Food World.

Finally, my free nutrition plan offers a step-by-step guide to feed your family right, and I encourage you to read through it now. You need to first educate yourself about proper nutrition and the dangers of junk food and processed foods in order to change the food culture of your entire family. To give your child the best start in life, and help instill healthy habits that will last a lifetime, you must lead by example. Children will simply not know which foods are healthy unless you, as a parent, teach it to them first.