Food marketing: child's play?

We take a look at how food is marketed to children, and what the problems are.
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  • Updated:6 Mar 2007

01 .Food marketing: child's play?

Please note: this information was current as of March 2007 but is still a useful guide today.

Kids are a special target for food marketing, and this concerns us for several reasons:

  • Child surrounded by productsThe techniques used to create brand awareness and desire for particular products are getting increasingly more sophisticated, and have the ability to reach more children than ever before. See Cyberspace marketing for more.
  • Because marketing influences kids’ food preferences and choices, it affects their diets and, ultimately, health. We looked at over 70 different products carrying promotions aimed at kids and found that the majority of them were likely to contribute to an unhealthy diet. On-pack promotions describes the different techniques used.
  • For very young children there’s evidence that they can’t tell the difference between ads and genuine programs on TV. Marketing aimed at kids can easily exploit this inability, adding another element to the problems with it.

What consumers think

  • CHOICE commissioned Newspoll to ask 1200 people aged 18 years and over if they would be in favour of or against government regulating the way food and drink is advertised and marketed to children.
  • Overall 82% were in favour, 13% against.
  • Among parents and guardians, the results were 86% in favour, 11% against.
  • Other results from the survey show that most parents support some form of government intervention to prevent children becoming overweight.
    Details and further results of this survey will be published in CHOICE later this year.

Our verdict

  • It's vital that food marketing is prevented from having a negative impact on kids’ diets, and that children are protected from being exploited.
  • A new voluntary code of practice is being developed by the industry, which looks more broadly at the marketing of food and drinks, including the more insidious forms of marketing via the internet.
  • While this may help, we think the Federal Government needs to do its bit too and take action to improve regulation of food promotion — in all its forms — to children.

Video: Kids and Baby Council - Advertising

A panel of experts has discussed hot topics affecting Australian parents at the inaugural CHOICE Kids and Baby Council - 2012. Here they discuss advertising.


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02.Cyberspace marketing


laptop and bowl of noodlesChildren and teenagers are computer-savvy, and with over 70% of all households with children under 15 having access to the internet at home, they’re easily exposed to advertising through this channel.

What’s worrying is that online marketing isn’t subject to the current voluntary code of practice for advertising to children, which applies to print, TV and radio advertising only. Even the most vigilant parent might struggle to protect their child from some forms of online marketing that can fly under the radar.

Online marketing techniques include:


The idea behind ‘advertainment’ isn’t to deliver a straightforward “buy my product” message, but rather to work on the branding aspect, to build a relationship with the children. Food company websites often have dedicated kids’ sections, with games and quizzes that incorporate the food products, logos and company ‘spokes-characters’.

  • Games on the McDonald’s website include a memory game, catch the nuggets and connect the dots, all featuring McDonald’s spokes-characters such as Ronald McDonald and the Hamburgler.
  • YoGo Alley from National Foods is a veritable online games arcade, with many of the games giving children the opportunity to beat other competitors. Daily competitions or monthly prizes encourage repeat visits, and sometimes an access code or barcode from the product is required to play.
  • The Maggi Noodles website (from Nestlé) encourages kids to join and become a ‘Noodolbot’, so they can
    “receive special newsletters, hear about new games and cool stuff from Noodolbot and Maggi”.


  • Websites encourage children to send electronic cards to their friends via email. The cards generally display images and logos of products and invite the kids who receive them to visit and join the website club or play online games.

Cyber game product placement

Food companies are incorporating their products and brand into popular computer games or game websites.

  • A version of the incredibly popular THE SIMS game has a McDonald’s kiosk as a place of employment for its virtual characters. Players can earn virtual money from running the virtual business, and the characters who eat the food served there earn credits for both ‘hunger’ and ‘fun’.


  • Many food company websites offer users free screensavers or wallpaper. Ultimately, these work as semi-permanent ads, ensuring daily exposure to a brand.

Viral marketing

  • Instead of using traditional advertising to promote Real Fruit Winders in the UK, Kellogg’s launched an interactive website including animated icons that children could email to each other. As the agency responsible described it: 
    “Activity focused on reaching playground leaders who could be relied upon to spread the word, ensuring a trickle-down effect on awareness and sales.”

03.On-pack promotions


Marketers know young children are incapable of having a relationship with a brand, but they realise kids have a strong connection with characters such as Bob the Builder and Noddy, who might enter their homes every day via the television.” UK trade magazine Promotions & Incentives.

In just one visit each to a Coles and a Woolworths, we found and bought over 70 different food products carrying promotions aimed at kids. The majority of which were high in sugar and/or fat, with items like chocolate, sweet biscuits, sugary breakfast cereals and confectionery among the most frequently promoted. From these we identified five main types of on-product promotion, one or more of which were used by most of the products in our sample:

Favourite characters

  • Studies have shown that the mere appearance of a character with a product can significantly alter a child’s perception of it. Not surprisingly, one of the key methods of marketing to children, particularly the youngest age groups, is to associate food brands with cartoon and TV characters, taking advantage of children’s familiarity with or affection for them. Winnie the Pooh, The Simpsons, Bugs Bunny, Rugrats, Postman Pat, Bob the Builder, SpongeBob Squarepants and Thomas the Tank Engine were just some of the characters that featured on the packaging of products in our sample.
  • Some characters have even been created as the spokes-character for a particular brand or product (think Snap, Crackle and Pop of KELLOGG’S Rice Bubbles fame). They’re not only used on product packaging, but in TV ads and sometimes interactive games on the product or company’s website. Because of their ongoing association with the product, a child needs only to see the character to be reminded of the food they promote, and their impact can be astonishing. For example, it’s been said American children are almost as likely to recognise Ronald McDonald as they are Santa Claus.

Movie tie-ins

  • You’ve probably noticed that with each major kids’ blockbuster movie release comes a variety of products featuring images from the movie on their packaging. The ‘Turn your world white’ Narnia promotion from Cadbury, Schweppes, Pepsi and Cottee’s –– where TV and cinema ads promoted the associated products, which in turn promoted the movie on their packaging –– was a prime example.
  • Nestlé tied in with 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by producing Wonka-branded chocolate bars and confectionery. The tie-in had the advantage of being able to mirror the plot of the film, with Nestlé hiding five golden tickets (which allowed recipients to win major prizes) in bars.


  • What kid could resist the chance to win a trip to Disneyland or the Nestlé chocolate factory, an iPod, a Malvern Star bike, a skateboard or movie passes? Over half the products in our sample offered prizes as an enticement to buy them.
  • Often to enter the competition kids have to SMS their details or fill in an entry form online. Not only does this give companies an instant source of personal details for future marketing, but in the case of websites, it’s another medium through which the product can be promoted to the child.


  • Stickers, magnets, tazos, watches, CD-ROMs and DVDs are just a few of the freebies we got with products in our survey. Invariably, the freebie is just one of a set, so in order to collect all four, six, eight or whatever, you need to buy more than one pack.
  • Fast-food outlets have got this marketing tactic, in the form of 'free' toys with kids' meals, down pat — see Playing with food for more on this.


  • Activities such as join-the-dots, quizzes, mazes and colouring-in are used to appeal to children in the supermarket, helping one brand to win out against another. They also encourage a child to spend time reading the packaging and becoming familiar with the brand or the spokes-character.

04.Playing with food


“The first rule (of parenting) to break here is ‘don’t play with your food’. Any way you can find to make the chocolate treat into a toy will be a positive step!”
Web resource for marketers to young children.

There seems to be no end to the ways to integrate food brands into a small child’s play. Among the products we've seen are:

  • M&M Counting book (which encourages kids to use it in conjunction with a pack of different-coloured M&Ms to learn how to count).
  • YUPI Gummi Lunch pack (containing candy versions of pizza, burgers, chips, cola and other fast-food favourites for kids to build their own meal).
  • McDonald’s McKIDS Play Food Set (with plastic burgers, nuggets, cash register and drive-through headset, so kids can play at working and eating in McDonald’s). 

‘Free’ toys

And of course for many years now, kids’ meals from fast-food outlets have been promoted with free toys.

  • Often the toys are based on children’s movies or TV shows (eg Ice Age 2 toys from Hungry Jack’s, Kong toys from KFC and Chicken Little toys from McDonald’s) or are popular toys like Bratz dolls, Hot Wheels cars or Lego.
  • To keep the children coming back, the toys that come with the meals are promoted in collectable sets, which change regularly.
  • Sometimes the toys are gender-specific: Furby toys for girls and Racer toys for boys from Red Rooster, for example.
  • ‘Free’ toys can be particularly effective at boosting sales. When Burger King in the US featured Teletubbies beanbag toys with its children’s meals in 1999, sales of the meals doubled over the six-week promotion period.

This practice may seem relatively harmless, but it comes at a cost.

  • First, there are usually at least four toys in the set to collect — the McDonald’s ‘The Dog Artist Collection’ promotion in April had 12.
  • Second, they run for a limited time only (in the case of the ‘Dog’ promotion, just 27 days). And you’ve got to get in fast as they regularly ‘sell out’.
  • If your child wants to collect all 12, that’s a McDONALD'S Happy Meal practically every second or third day. At $4.25 a meal, the costs add up, nutritionally as well as financially — not to mention the plethora of plastic that rapidly spreads through the house.