Can food advertising ever be kid-friendly?

Over the past year, The Center for Investigative Reporting has been looking at the health, nutrition and eating habits of American children and teenagers. Most recently, we highlighted sugar levels in school cafeteria meals, which often are more than double the recommended intake for the general public.

As part of our examination, we’ve launched a video game called “Hairnet Hero” that will teach kids, parents and teachers about the calories, fats, salts and sugars in their food.

While we looked at all these various factors in kids’ health, we also wanted to look at how food is marketed to children. In many ways, the subject never has been more relevant. Over the past year, analysts have credited aggressive do-it-yourself, local and organic influences, as well as public health campaigns, for improvements in the public’s understanding of nutrition. But in a twist, corporations also have jumped on the healthy advertising bandwagon.

Last year, The Walt Disney Co. announced its intention to ban junk-food advertising from its television, radio and digital platforms that cater to children. The changes will take effect in 2015, and the channels will adhere to a strict set of nutrition standards. Working with first lady Michelle Obama as part of her Let’s Move! campaign, the company also announced that it will reduce the amount of sodium in food served at its amusement parks by 25 percent.

As the first major brand to make the move, Disney acknowledged it likely would lose some advertising revenue, but Chairman and CEO Robert A. Iger said addressing childhood obesity is “smart business.” Obama called the move a “game changer,” urging other media companies to follow suit.

Since 2007, Masterfoods, maker of Snickers and Milky Way candy bars, has had one of the most stringent pledges to avoid marketing to kids younger than 12. Actions from companies such as Masterfoods mark an unusual shift for big food producers that long have resisted government regulations, arguing instead for voluntary nutrition guidelines. After all, processed foods, which typically are high in fat and sugar, are cheaper to produce than healthier alternatives.  

For years, the advertising industry has worked to tailor its marketing messages to appeal to children and their parents. It’s not hard to turn on the television or open a magazine today and spot the usual suspects: fast food, potato chips, sugary cereals and soft drinks. So, as we examine the eating habits of American kids, let’s look back at some of the advertising that has focused on getting them to consume specific products.

1940s:

A 1944 poster by the U.S. War Food Administration.

Credit: U.S. National Archives


Around 1940, the publication of two separate studies created panic in a nation preparing for war.

The studies, which concluded that thiamine deficiency was causing sluggishness among Americans, pushed the government to endorse thiamine-fortified food products, such as doughnuts.

Today, such doughnuts are considered  “enriched flour” products.

Later, in 1944, the War Food Administration issued a poster (shown at right) using characters from a nursery rhyme that urged families to ration food for the sake of those fighting overseas. The most expensive items included meat and dairy.

1950s:

In this 1954 short film, courtesy of the Prelinger Archives, Ralph discovers the importance of staying healthy via the “five-finger method,” which recommended that the daily caloric intake include “a little bit of everything,” an approach that differs drastically from what experts recommend today.

This collection of General Mills cereal commercials from 1959 features Rocky and Bullwinkle, popular characters who were an effective marketing tool for a built-in audience.

With the mass production of televisions, advertisers could reach children in middle-class households across the country directly, via Saturday morning cartoon breaks.

1970s:

This famous Coke advertisement, featuring “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” brought the flower power of the ’70s to selling soda. Marketers in this era also used the words “diet” and “light” to convince the public that soft drinks could be a healthier alternative.

1980s:

The 1980s saw the development of big advertising agencies and corporate monopolies. One example of their work is this commercial for Post’s Fruity Pebbles. Families were presented with an abundance of choices in the supermarket – but many were loaded with sugar.

1990s:

The ’90s brought the advent of quick and easy meals for kids that were high in sodium, such as Lunchables. Fast food chains, particularly McDonald’s, worked with Disney and other entertainment companies to incorporate kids’ favorite characters into children’s meals.

2000s:

As nutrition and public health awareness gained traction in the U.S., fast food quickly became associated with child obesity and diabetes rates, as seen in this advocacy ad from PETA Kids. Interest groups started pressuring fast food chains to ease up on the kid-focused ads, in one case filing a lawsuit against McDonald’s.

Have you seen any ads recently that you thought sent a particularly good or bad message for kids about their diets? Be a part of the conversation as we continue to cover childhood nutrition for CIR and our Junior Watchdogs project. Play “Hairnet Hero,” our new video game, to learn how to help kids make better choices in the cafeteria. Let us know what you think!

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