Tricks Are for Kids


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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an old piece from I still think it’s interesting, so I’m rerunning it here.

This post from Nate Silver’s new Five Thirty Eight caught me eye. Researchers observed that many cartoon characters appearing on cereal boxes are looking down, which means they could be trying to make eye contact with kids. Could this matter?

Of the 86 characters that appeared on 65 boxes, the researchers noted that 57 were looking downward (they found that these cereals tended to be placed on middle shelves. So looking downward means looking at children).

Then, the researchers tested whether eye contact increased positive feelings toward the brand. They digitally altered a box of Trix and asked 63 university students to rate it

When the researchers compared the responses against control cereal boxes on which characters weren’t looking downward, they found that eye contact increased attention to, trust in and connection with the brand. When participants were asked to choose between Trix and Fruity Pebbles, they were more likely to choose Trix when the character on the box, a rabbit, was looking down at them.

To get a first hand feel for this creepy phenomenon, I hoofed it over to my local Fred Meyer to browse the cereal aisle, a place I’ve only stopped in once before to grab some store brand bran flakes for homemade muesli. The first thing walking into that aisle made me realize was how many SINKs and DINKs live in my neighborhood. There just wasn’t the expected endless, piebald wall of technicolor leprechauns, toucans and hyper-kinetic rabbits. They were there, but here’s the funny thing. They were relegated to the bottom shelves. And here’s the creepy thing. They were looking up at me, trying to make eye contact from their place on the floor.

Apparently the the rabbit and the leprechaun have a back up plan for stores where their corporate overlords aren’t willing to pay top dollar for slotting fees. My guess is that the manufacturers have different boxes depending on what slots they are paying for.

But Adrian Peterson didn’t need to TRY to make eye contact, I had to TRY to avoid it.


At 5′ 9″, I am apparently the exact height of a prospective Wheaties customer.

The Lords of Cereal are not playing around. Especially when it comes to hunting kids through marketing. Here’s Marion Nestle summarizing the findings of a major literature review conducted by the Institute of Medicine in 2006:

The IOM analyzes the results of 123 published, peer-reviewed studies addressing links between food marketing and children’s preferences, requests, consumption, and adiposity. Despite Talmudic parsing of the limitations of the research, the IOM finds that the preponderance of evidence supports the links. Marketing strongly influences children’s food preferences, requests, and consumption. The idea that some forms of marketing increase the risk of obesity, says the IOM, “cannot be rejected.”

The IOM conducted its study under a considerable handicap. Companies would not provide proprietary information, because the IOM is required to make public all documents it uses. The report reveals why companies insist on keeping such research private. It lists numerous firms that conduct marketing research focused even on preschool children, using methods — photography, ethnography, focus groups — in an Orwellian-sounding fashion to elucidate the psychological underpinnings of children’s food choices, “kid archetypes,” the “psyche of mothers as the family gatekeeper,” and “parent–child dyads of information.” As the IOM documents, this enterprise is breathtaking in its comprehensive and unabashed effort to provide a research basis for exploiting the suggestibility of young children. Although marketers justify appeals to children as “training” in consumer culture, as free speech, and as good for business, they are not selling just any consumer product: they are selling junk foods to children who would be better off not eating them.

. . . Marketing to children is hardly new, but recent methods are far more intense and pervasive. Television still predominates, but the balance is shifting to product placements in toys, games, educational materials, songs, and movies; character licensing and celebrity endorsements; and less visible “stealth” campaigns involving word of mouth, cellular-telephone text messages, and the Internet. All aim to teach children to recognize brands and pester their parents to buy them. The IOM notes that by two years of age, most children can recognize products in supermarkets and ask for them by name.

But the most insidious purpose of marketing is to persuade children to eat foods made “just for them” — not what adults are eating. Some campaigns aim to convince children that they know more about what they are “supposed to” eat than their parents do. Marketers explicitly attempt to undermine family decisions about food choices by convincing children that they, not adults, should control those choices.4 Indeed, children now routinely report that they, and not their parents, decide what to eat.

We can see their handiwork in a new study:

A new study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, now shows just how powerful that advertising and branding can be. Researchers showed children stills from fast food commercials and asked them to name the various foods in the frame. Only 10% of the kids correctly identified Burger King’s apple slices, packaged liked french fries, while the majority confused them for french fries. Around one-half to one-third of the kids in the study couldn’t correctly identify milk in McDonald’s and Burger King children ads.

Watch the confusion here:

It adds to a robust literature on children’s perceptions and advertising. The most policy relevant subset of that literature is on children’s ability to understand persuasive intent. Plunging into a deep dive on the topic will have to wait for a future post, but it’s the lynch pin for calls to severely limit marketing to children. The question is central to answer the question of whether marketing to children is inherently misleading. If it is, then the advertisers First Amendment rights are superseded by the consumer’s right not to be misled.

The other subset that calls for a closer look is pester power. That is the idea that, although kids aren’t the decision makers as consumers, they can be convinced and motivated to nag their parents into making purchases that the parents would prefer not to make. People of a libertarian bent, who would be quick to dismiss the legitimacy of lending policy weight to this idea need to understand the emerging consensus that willpower is, in important ways, a finite resource that can be exhausted. Kids are diabolically savvy about exhausting that resource, even as they are less savvy about the marketers manipulating them.

The concept of pester power buttresses the central premise that marketing to children is inherently manipulative in the policy responses in a number of countries.

In the United Kingdom, Greece, Denmark, and Belgium advertising to children is restricted, and in Quebec, Sweden and Norway advertising to children under the age of 12 is illegal.

The European Union also has framework legislation in place which sets down minimum provisions on advertising to children for its 27 member states. The EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive, due to replace the Television Without Frontiers Directive in all member states by the end of 2009, sets out several EU-wide rules on advertising and children:

Advertising shall not cause moral or physical detriment to minors, and shall therefore comply with the following criteria for their protection:

a. it shall not directly exhort minors to buy a product or a service by exploiting their inexperience or credulity;
b. it shall not directly encourage minors to persuade their parents or others to purchase the goods or services being advertised;
c. it shall not exploit the special trust minors place in parents, teachers or other persons;
d. it shall not unreasonably show minors in dangerous situations

In addition:

e. Children’s programs may only be interrupted if the scheduled duration is longer than 30 minutes
f. Product placement is not allowed in children’s programs.
g. The Member States and the Commission should encourage audiovisual media service providers to develop codes of conduct regarding the advertising of certain foods in children’s programs.

On a different front, in the a same battle:

First lady Michelle Obama stepped up the pressure Tuesday against companies selling junk food to students, announcing a new government proposal that would ban advertising of sodas and unhealthy snacks in public schools.

The new USDA rules would phase out the advertising of sugary drinks and junk foods on vending machines and around campuses during the school day and set guidelines for other in-school promotions, from banners hung in hallways to sponsored scoreboards on school football fields.

I have to give Michelle Obama credit. While each piece of her Let’s Move campaign has been an underwhelming compromised step forward, they are slowly, but surely starting to add up to something substantial when taken as a whole.

Getting a handle on marketing and competitive schools is a no brainer, since there are no difficult legal, philosophical or public health questions to be addressed; only interest group politics. That means if we want better compromises, we need a stronger public health constituency.

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Why the Trix Rabbit Looks Down on You
Mona Chalabi and Allison McCann | FiveThirtyEight | 2 April 2014

Food Marketing and Childhood Obesity — A Matter of Policy
Marion Nestle | The New England Journal of Medicine | 15 June 2006

Watch: Kids Confuse Apple Slices for French Fries in Fast Food Ads
Alexandra Sifferlin | Time | 1 April 2014

Children’s Reaction to Depictions of Healthy Foods in Fast-Food Television Advertisements
Amy M. Bernhardt, MEd; Cara Wilking, JD; Mark Gottlieb, JD; Jennifer Emond, PhD; James D. Sargent, MD | JAMA Pediatrics | 31 March 2014

The science of willpower
Lia Steakley | The Scope | Stanford Medicine | 29 December 2011

Advertising to Children

First Lady Proposes Ban on Junk Food Marketing in Schools
Maggie Fox | NBC News | 25 February 2014


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