Television Marketing and Children’s Consumption Behaviours


On a daily basis, children, as well as adults throughout the United States and other countries, are barraged with advertisements. Advertisements are normally done via billboards, magazines, newspapers, television, and cash machine screens among others. However, television remains the most extensively utilized channel of advertisement chiefly due to the fact that it reaches a higher number of audiences than the other communication media. Evidence from past studies shows that children force their parents and guardians to buy for them the goods they see advertised on television (Gorn & Goldberg 1982; Coon & Tucker 2002). Indeed, television marketing has been shown to affect the health and dietary habits of children in different ways such as food demands, purchases, liking, and consumption of the promoted food products. Additionally, the promotion of food products generates misinformation among the children concerning the behaviours that are required to uphold optimum health and the nutritional worth of the marketed foods (Jeffrey, McLellan & Fox 1982, p.179). For example, the consistent advertisement of soft drinks and fast foods has created the misperception that to uphold good health one should consume fast foods and drink Coke.

The latent impact of television marketing on information, mindset, and conduct has created substantial concern among parents and child psychologists. A portion of this concern emanates from the general exposure of children to television. Children aged between 2 and 11 years and teenagers aged between 12 and 17 years spend on average a total of twenty hours every week watching television. Byrd-Bredbenner and Grasso (2000) state that, “by the time children graduate from high school, the time devoted to watching television will exceed the hours spent in school,” (p.61). This paper aims to analyse the impact of television advertisements produced by the fast-food industry on children’s food consumption patterns and behaviours.

Theoretical framework and aspects of social imagination

In the past several decades, advertising aimed at children has received its fair share of criticism. According to a report made by Burr and Burr (1976), majority of the American parents held strong doubts concerning the honesty with which products are advertised to children. These parents exhibited a high level of suspicion about the perceived deceptive features of the advertisements. In the recent past, the American Academy of Paediatrics has articulated worries that advertising aimed at young children is illusory and manipulative (Ludwig & Gortmaker, 2004). Television marketing is viewed as scheming, creating longings that would otherwise not be significant, encouraging materialism, and suppressing creativity, inflicting stress and strain on financially poor parents, and negatively affecting parent-child associations (Burr & Burr 1976; Spungin 2004).

The precise cause of parental worries concerning advertising is that children are considered to be vulnerable. Unlike adults, children lack the cognitive abilities to comprehend the nature of advertising and lack the maturity needed to make wise decisions that influence their health or life. Even though it is broadly acknowledged that children aged five and above are able to comprehend the disparity between a programme and an advertisement, and that, from the age of eight and above children also comprehend the money-making objective of advertising, this does not imply that children are not affected by it. Prior research on the behavioural impact of advertising has shown that watching television by children is directly related to demands for the marketed goods. A predominantly negative possible outcome of children’s advertising is the “pester power” or “nag factor” (Mazur et al. 2008). Spungin (2004) states that, “advertising encourages children to nag their parents into something that is not good for them, or something they don’t need or the parent cannot afford” (p. 37).

Advert exposure, in general, has been clearly linked to increased requests for specific items and this seems to be equally true for food adverts as for toy adverts. Various research studies have demonstrated that: total TV viewing and total media exposure are associated with subsequent food and drink requests; exposure to advertisements increases demands for specific advertised food items in subsequent shopping trips, and the time spent in front of the TV increases the number of requests made by children to their parents for advertised foods. In addition, it has been noted that during television viewing, over 40 % of children ask their parents to purchase food items they had seen advertised (Mazur et al. 2008). Given the nature of the foods promoted on TV, if these requests translated into purchases and consumption this could only have a negative impact on children’s diet and health. Indeed, many health problems such as obesity and dental decay have been linked to television marketing. The problem of the effect of television marketing on children’s food choices can be analyzed using several aspects of social imagination, children’s processing techniques, children’s cognitive schemas, and the fast-food industry’s television marketing strategies.

Aspects of children’s social imagination

From a functionalist perspective, television marketing aimed at children serves an important role in society. The enticing and deceptive advertising helps the companies to find loyal customers for their products thereby achieving their profit-making goals. The profits earned from the sale of these products, in turn, enable the companies to survive in the competitive global market. Symbolic interaction perspective can also be used to analyse the problem of television marketing food to children. This perspective focuses on the meanings that people attach to everyday events and concepts (Ferrante 2003). It is an indisputable fact that young children attach great meaning to foods that are high in fat, salt, and sugar content such as confectionaries. This is the reason why the companies that produce and advertise foods for children focus on such foods only. The companies know that if they market such foods to children, they are most likely to sell faster than if they were to market healthy foods such as vegetables. Lastly, the conflict perspective is useful in explaining the interaction that takes place between the marketing companies and young children. Young children lack adequate resources (information) to make informed food choices and will instead prefer foods that are attractive to their senses. The marketing companies take advantage of the ignorance of the children and intensively market unhealthy foods to them (Ferrante 2003).

Children’s processing of advertised foods

Many researchers have debated food advertising’s effects on children. While on the one hand, a few studies indicate that television advertisements have little effect on children’s food preferences, the majority of them show the contrary; that is, television advertisements have a significant impact on children’s consumption patterns. One likely explanation of such effects is developmental differences in children’s cognitive processing of advertising content. The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) concluded that young children are cognitively defenceless against advertising messages, frequently accepting advertising claims at face value.

Sensory-based processing and centration

Sensory-based processing and centration are important concepts pertaining to children’s understanding of advertisements. Ferrante (2003) argues that, “Young children are attentive to salient perceptual cues such as animation, music, and audio/visual changes within their immediate sensory environment. These cues are especially helpful in recognizing product and brand names,” (p. 39). Children often focus on such cues to the exclusion of accompanying product information, a process known as centration. For example, visual special effects presented in proximity to product information may distract children from processing nutritional claims delivered by audio. This is consistent with research indicating that children’s short-term food preferences reflected the food adverts viewed recently, especially adverts using animation and special audiovisual techniques. These theoretical concepts give rise to concerns about children’s critical viewing skills. Ferrante (2003) argues that children’s developing cognitive executive functions (for example, self-regulation, impulse control, and selective attention) may make them vulnerable to pleasing but largely irrelevant persuasive cues. Children may have difficulty switching their attention from audiovisual effects to pertinent product information. Even if children understand product claims are inflated, they may still desire the product against their better judgment due to undeveloped executive functioning skills.

Children’s cognitive schemas

Beyond infancy, children have to learn to survive in a given society. In rich developed societies, recent decades have seen marked changes in many aspects of lifestyle. While energy needs are decreasing due to increasingly sedentary work and leisure activities, the food supply has increased in amount, variety and convenience. For reasons that have to do with both sensory appeal and nutritional input, foods that are rich in energy, high in fat and/or sugar, are easily accepted and ingested by children. It is clearly more difficult to have children accept foods generally regarded as healthier, such as vegetables, fruits, and fish among others. This is a clear problem for parents, educators, and health professionals. How can children be made more willing to try and perhaps enjoy such healthy foods, rather than overindulging in high energy substances that can create weight control or health problems in those with the wrong genetic background or unfavourable life circumstances? In society, children and adults have particular cognitive attitudes or schemas about substances that can be ingested as foods. Such schemas can influence behaviours to a large degree. Cognitive schemas are mental structures that represent organised knowledge about a given type of stimulus and in particular foods. They affect expectations about familiar and unfamiliar foods. Knowing how cognitive schemas work can help to improve children’s acceptance of diverse and unfamiliar foods (Ferrante 2003).

One type of behaviour found in a majority of children in developed countries is called “neophobia” and is characterised by a refusal expressed by the child to accept objects, among which foods, that are unfamiliar or new to them. Most children, between the ages of 2 and 10 years, are affected by more or less severe neophobia. Some cultures might be more permissive and expose young children to a broader variety of food stimuli, thereby making more foods seem familiar to the child. Studies should be carried out on this issue and it would be interesting to compare how easy (or how difficult) it is in different countries of the developed world to induce acceptance or even liking for a broad variety of foods including those that have a low appeal to many children. In all countries, nevertheless, some proportion of children do exhibit neophobia and strongly reject many foods that their parents regard as healthy (Chestnutt & Ashraf 2002).

Children use cognitive schemas to evaluate foods. When a new or unfamiliar food is presented, many children have the cognitive schema that it will not taste good. Convincing the child that the schema does not apply to this novel food and that this food is an “exception” to the general schema could facilitate the child’s willingness to taste the food and have a chance to realise that its taste is not indeed unpleasant. Another strategy could be to convince the child that the food actually does not belong in the novel, unknown category, but rather is a familiar food. The trick to achieving such a cognitive change in the child is to use what scholars have referred to as a locally familiar “flavour principle” (Ferrante 2003). In every culture, certain foods, spices, or other salient flavour substance are used in many staple foods. Every child learns early in life that foods with such flavour characteristics are both tasty and safe. Children who have observed adults and peers enjoy foods with those culture-specific flavour principles are willing to ingest them and, following the experience of the taste and post-ingestive consequences of intake, readily develop strong preferences for foods that are typical of their own cultures.

The fast-food industry’s marketing strategies

The fast-food industry employs numerous marketing strategies to attract the attention of children and turn them into their loyal customers. These strategies are created based on children’s cognitive and information processing skills and abilities. Two of the most commonly used strategies in the fast food industry include: the use of emotional appeal and marketing fun towards children.

Emotional appeal

Emotional appeal is one of the high potential distractions for child viewers. Many emotional appeals are used in television marketing for fast foods, including associating the advertised product with athletic ability and being “cool.” Advertisers also combine production techniques and emotional appeals to make food adverts especially persuasive to children. McLellan (2002) reported that 50% of sampled food adverts (especially fast foods) used animation and fun/happiness appeals. These adverts seldom showed food, instead depicting children having fun to develop long-term, positive emotional associations with food brands.

Marketing fun towards children

The marketing of food as entertainment has been referred to as ‘eatertainment’ by the food industry, trade press and the media (Poris 2005). This marketing trend is characterized by several entertainment techniques included in the food consumption, such as premium offers added to the purchase; licensed characters on packaging positioned towards the children; the development of special kids meals at restaurants; and the fun product designs which include play as added value, often incorporating unusual shapes and colours of food to attract young people. Despite making the fun food more appealing by itself through looks and taste, play is also experienced on other levels in the consumption. First by interactive play with the product, through opening boxes or building something together, a second fun experience is reached through playing with friends as in talking and trading games or cards among them. Variations in entertainment preferences in children are due to demographic factors, and these should be considered when developing entertainment products.

Children who view friend-oriented activities as fun like to interact and socialize with friends. Brand value might thus be more important to some children, as brands can provide a solution to children’s needs to integrate with their peers. Another way of becoming an in-group member could be the consumption of premium gifts following products. Children who are eager to have their meals at a particular restaurant may therefore not have anything to do with the food in particular, but with wanting the gift following the meal. The preference for food items or specific brands may thus be learned from dimensions of fun in the food offered, being influenced by peer groups and media communication. Children who enjoy family-oriented types of entertainment also appreciate activities with all members of a family (Poris 2005). The family unit and their needs are therefore taken into consideration in marketing communication, as being together with the family could be seen as an entertainment activity by itself.

Content of the food advertisements aimed at children

The manufacturing industry has been blamed for targeting children as an accessible market for their products and services (McLellan 2002). Rodd and Patel (2005) state that, “in 1999, 12 billion US dollars were invested in marketing strategies directly aimed at children,” (p. 710). Some scholars have conducted a comparative analysis of television marketing in developed countries. Evidence from such studies shows that advertisements that promote food products, toys and entertainment are the most widespread advertisements aimed at children. Nevertheless, food marketing comprises the greatest percentage of advertisements in almost all countries. In addition, advertisements of confectionery comprised one-fifth of all food advertisements. In-depth nutritional assessment of advertised food products showed that close to 90 percent of all advertised products are high in fat, sugar and salt content (Taras & Gage 1995). It appears that the majority of food and beverages that are aimed at children encourage the direct opposite of a healthy diet and are in direct conflict with national dietary standards.

The study by Rodd and Patel (2005) was conducted using 41 hours of television programmes produced particularly for children on the major British commercial and terrestrial channel, ITV1, between July and August 2003. The results of this study indicated that 95.3 percent of the total food/drink advertisements promoted food and beverage products that had high sugar and acidic content. Only 4.7 percent of the food adverts promoted low-sugar and acidic food products. Interestingly, none of the advertisements examined during the period promoted healthy food such as fruits and vegetables. The results of this study were similar to those found by Chestnutt and Ashraf (2002) whose study made a comparison of the percentage of food advertisements that are potentially harmful to dental health between children’s and primetime television. Chestnutt and Ashraf (2002) found that 73.4 percent of advertising time is spent to market foods that are potentially harmful to dental health during children’s programmes. This is contrary to only 18.6 percent of advertising time spent on advertising the same products during primetime television. This proves that television advertisements are rife with products that are potentially harmful to children’s health.


The content of fats, sugar or salt in the advertised foods should be clearly and truthfully indicated to enable the consumers to know exactly what it is they are consuming. Unhealthy snacks should not be portrayed by advertisements as conventional meals. Kurnit (2005) states that “responsible marketing towards children is about balancing commercial selling with promoting children’s well-being,” (p.11). The implementation of self-regulation can be an effective means of achieving responsible marketing but it has to be accompanied by legal sanctions to ensure that food and beverage companies, as well as marketers, adhere to the set rules and regulations. It may also be advisable for governments to have more control over television marketing to ensure that food, beverage and marketing companies do not take advantage of the vulnerability of children. This measure is applicable in cases where self-regulation does not work. In addition, schools and the media should embark on educational and awareness creation programs to educate young consumers on the nutritional content of foods and the nature of advertisements aimed at them. This would help the young consumers to make informed choices concerning foods.


Obesity, poor dental health, and general poor health affect many children in the developed world. Television food advertisements have been cited as the major reason behind these outcomes. Television marketing not only gives inaccurate information concerning the advertised foods but also encourages children to consume the majority of the products of which are unhealthy. The impact of television advertising on children’s choice of food can be minimized through self-regulation, responsible marketing, education programs, and governmental control where applicable. Such measures however require maximum cooperation from all the parties concerned.

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