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

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.

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