By Melissa Breyer(Photo: Photosindia / Getty Images)
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The nation's largest producer of baby carrots launched an advertising campaign earlier this year positioning baby carrots as the extreme new junk food. It was hilarious, but you have to wonder what this says about the effectiveness of junk-food marketing. If carrots are adopting these tactics, something must be working. And working well!
According to the Federal Trade Commission, food makers spend $1.6 billion annually to reach children through advertising; while obesity statistics show that 34 percent of adults and 17 percent of children are now classified as obese.
Below are some of the tricks the junk-food industry uses to subtly sway us, and especially kids, into buying their wares. Learn their tactics so you can avoid falling for them.
1. Marketing to children
The food industry understands that children are a very lucrative market. Kids in the U.S. have terrific purchasing power: Children between 3 and 11 years old bought or influenced the purchase of $18 billion worth of products and entertainment in 2005.
Beginning in the early 1990s, food manufacturers launched new product categories, including "fun foods" -- like purple ketchup -- designed to take advantage of children's increased spending power and independence. According to the Institute of Medicine, between 1994 and 2004 there were "3,936 new food products and 511 new beverage products targeted to children and youth."
Watch out for food sold these ways:
Celebrities, cartoon characters, movie tie-ins, toys
A study by the Rudd Center of Food Policy at Yale found that cross-promotion with characters, celebrities, toys, and movie giveaways targeted at children and teens increased by 78 percent from 2006 to 2008 -- and only 18 percent of products examined met accepted nutrition standards for foods sold to youth.
Novelty food shape or packaging
Can you say cartoon-character shaped pasta or day-glo yogurt in a squeeze tube? $3 billion annually goes to packaging designed for children. If you've ever seen a 3-year-old faced with the choice between a wholesome cereal in a plain yellow box versus a bright rainbow box emblazoned with princesses, you'll know that that $3 billion is being spent effectively.
Sponsorship of cultural, community, or educational events
Ronald McDonald visits schools to promote literacy, Coke and Pepsi have in-school fitness programs. The message they bring is great, on the surface -- but the subtext (eat McDonalds, drink Coke) is often the more-enduing lesson.
Cell phones, mobile music devices, broadband video, instant messaging, video games, and virtual three-dimensional worlds have run amok with junk food marketing campaigns.
Especially watch out for online "advergames" -- interactive games in which a company's product or brand characters are featured, functioning as both a game and an advertisement in one. These are designed to, essentially, have your child live in a junk food ad for a few hours.
2. Enticing prices
If a product is promoted by its sheer, extreme size or the awesomeness of the deal, you might be witnessing the widely practiced pricing strategy known as "volume discounts."
Two burgers for a buck? A pillowcase-size bag of chips for a few cents more? A cup of soda fit for a horse? It's a kind of hit-you-over-the-head sales tactic that makes it hard to pass up the bargain, even if it means opting for a less-healthy choice, and you ultimately end up buying more.
When faced with this type of "value," remember that penny for penny, you will usually get more nutrition from spending more on healthy food.
3. Misleading labels
You'd think with all the regulations we have that labeling would be pretty straightforward -- but if there's a workaround, there's a marketing department that will find it.
Pay special attention to these label areas:
This is a tricky one, duping even the savviest of label scourers. Most of us know that ingredients are listed in order from most to least, and we'll look to see where, say, sugars or fats are listed in the order. But ingredient groups aren't required to be listed together.
So, for example, an item could contain corn syrup, cane sugar, and fructose in seemingly minor quantities toward the bottom of the list -- but if you combine them together in a general group of "sugar," they quickly move to the top.
Made with whole grains
We keep hearing about the importance of eating whole grains, but just because a product touts that it is "made with" or "contains" whole grains doesn't mean that whole grains make up the bulk of it. Many grain-based junk food items are predominantly made with refined grains, with a spattering of whole grains thrown in for labeling credibility.
Check to see where on the ingredient list the word "whole" is. If the first ingredient is "whole" wheat flour (or other grain), you're in luck. If it's way down the list, you've been punked.
Serving size has nothing to do with the ingredients list, but it can have a dramatic effect on the nutrition panel. By dividing a serving into several smaller servings, the less desirable nutritional elements (calories, sodium, fat, sugar, etc.) are significantly reduced.
4. Manipulative visibility
It's not pure chance that junk food advertising ends up in places where children are. Look for advertising and any kind of branding, even just small logos, in nurseries, pre-school centers, schools, children's clubs, playgrounds, sports facilities, family and child clinics, and pediatric offices. It's everywhere!
Also notice where junk food is positioned in stores. You will find loads of it placed in the highest visibility shelves and locations. Food companies often pay for these locations -- like the end of aisles and near the checkout.
5. Suggestive science
When the Children's Hospital of Boston performed a comprehensive review of food-industry sponsored studies of soft drinks, they found that the likelihood of conclusions favorable to the industry was higher among research sponsored by the food industry than those studies that received no industry funding. "If a study is funded by the industry, it may be closer to advertising than science," the author of the study says.
The lesson? Take studies touted by food companies with a grain of salt.
6. Marketing to parents
Children may respond to cartoon characters, but kids aren't the only demographic whose psyche can be enticed. Pay attention to images of a happy family with slogans such as "wanting the best for your family."
Look for marketing towards moms with emotive messages suggesting things like:
- The company is the parents' ally.
- The food or beverage will make you a better parent.
- A parent who purchases this food or beverage is a more intelligent or generous parent.
It's the parental equivalent of a Sponge Bob package -- the irresistible draw. The marketing is trying to say that if you choose a different product, you don't want the best for your family -- bad you! But when you're armed with knowledge, you can avoid these tricks.
- 11 scary fast-food breakfasts
- McDonald's: Stop including toys with junk food
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- The rebranding of six popular food items