Food marketing can take many forms. Be it advertising to children, sports sponsorships or product packaging itself, we are continuously exposed to advertising of food high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars or salt, especially children.

In fact, the food industry works hard to promote its products. As for sugary and energy drinks’ companies, they are constantly looking for new drinks to appeal to all consumer segments, distribute them in many points of sale and use a wide range of aggressive techniques.

Children are a vulnerable target to advertising

Children are vulnerable to the various marketing strategies used to reach them and are not able to recognize the commercial nature of some of them. In fact, toddlers cannot distinguish the content of the television program, and the information it transmits, from the persuasive will of the advertisements.1,2 From ages 4 to 5, young children are able to know that they are watching something different when their program presents an advertisement, but they still perceive it as entertainment, at least until 7 or 8 years.3

In the course of their cognitive and social development, including the acquisition of knowledge, the development of abstract representation capabilities with multiple dimensions and abilities of decision making and strategies, young people become increasingly able to discern the intentions of the advertisers.4 However, understanding the true nature of advertising, which is to try to sell a product with the aim of profiting from it, is acquired by all young people only in early adolescence, that is to say 11-12 years old.5,6

A surveyi conducted by the Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec among 10,000 young Quebecers showed that almost half of teenagers do not seem to be able to recognize the various types of strategies put in place by manufacturers to sell more sugar-sweetened beverages. The vulnerability of young people to advertisers then seems to extend significantly beyond 12 years. For example, the perception of a product by the child may be altered by the simple association of a popular character with a product.7 Using this type of character ensures that the child retains a slogan8 or identifies the product.9

Why does the industry advertise to children?

For the industry, commercial advertising to hildren has a significant economic interest:

  • children have direct and indirect economic power:10,11,12,13
    • they would influence more than 40% of family purchases;14
    • worldwide, spendings by children aged 4-12 years is steadily increasing;
    • in Canada, in 2004, they have influenced family purchases for 20 billion dollars;15
    • many children receive pocket money, which they spend: according to data from 2002, 4 million Canadian children aged 2 to 12 years old would spend 1.5 billion dollars each year on their own pocket money and would affect the purchase of household items for up to 15 billion dollars.16 In 2006, Canadian children spent nearly 3 billion dollars from their pocket money;
    • in the the United States, children who use their allowances doubled their spending every decade between 1960 and 1990. In 2002,their purchasing power has reached 40 billion  US$;17
  • advertising enables brand loyalty among these current and future consumers:
    • from the age of six months, babies have the ability to form mental images of corporate logos or mascots:18
    • from the age of three, one in five American child claims specific branded products;19
    • among the six most recognized brands by toddlers, four represent the food industry:20 93% of children between the ages of 3 and 5 recognize the McDonald’s logo, even before they can read;21
    • between the ages of 3 and 5, young children prefer and consume more fries presented in a McDonald’s package to the same fries in a normal package.22


i Survey carried out among a group of 10,000 high school students I-III between November 2010 and end of January 2011, as part of the evaluation mandate of the Gobes-tu ça ? program from the Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec.