Junk Food Marketing Study: What Are Kids Being Fed?

Children and teens today are the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than their parents — largely down to serious health concerns linked to the overconsumption of junk food. With over 39 million children under age 5 being overweight, the obesity epidemic is growing at a rapid pace. Though the worrying statistics can be attributed to many factors, there’s one culprit we rarely hear about despite the huge power it holds over children: junk food marketing.

It’s important to note that marketers don’t actively try to make kids unhealthy. Their aim is to increase sales and promote their products. They’re great at what they do – and it helps that their products are delicious. Their ads lure young customers in more and more each day, shaping a whole generation’s unhealthy eating habits. But fear not, because in this article, we’re going to dive deep into the world of junk food marketing and how it’s making our kids crave those not-so-healthy treats.

What Actually Counts as Junk Food?

Junk food describes products that are high in calories and low in nutritional value. They’re usually high in unhealthy components like sugars, saturated fats, and salts, while skimping on essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber. Despite its poor nutrition, junk food’s addictive tastes, convenience, and low cost make it a staple for many. Common junk foods include fried foods, many takeaways, sugary and salty snacks, and sweet drinks.

When we talk about junk food, it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. Different regions have their own standards in its production and distribution. For example, in the United States, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a ubiquitous ingredient in products ranging from fast food to breakfast cereals and even bread. It’s very uncommon in junk food in Europe, however, as many studies linked this sweetener to obesity and health issues, prompting strict restrictions on its use.

Don’t get it twisted, though, European junk food is still just that. Even though many say the UK’s products taste “healthier” due to a smaller ingredient list and fewer additives, genetically modified foods are present across multiple industries. Less unhealthy ingredients also doesn’t automatically make junk food in Europe healthy as it’s still filled with fats, salt, and sugars instead of vitamins and nutrients. 

Globally, obesity rates vary across different countries, showing how quickly unhealthy dietary habits can spread. Updated statistics show that about 20% of children and adolescents in the US grapple with obesity. In Europe, the average obesity rate among children is about 12.5%, with specific countries showing different rates. Around 17% of kids are obese in the UK, 15% in Germany, while a concerning 40% of children in Spain and 18% in France are overweight​.

The Ins and Outs of Junk Food Marketing, and Why It Works

Junk food marketing encompasses all tactics and strategies used by food and beverage companies to promote and advertise unhealthy, highly processed, and nutritionally poor products. While it doesn’t intentionally promote obesity, junk food marketing creates a strong desire for these products, which can influence your dietary preferences.

Children and teens are particularly vulnerable to this type of marketing because they often don’t have the cognitive skills needed to understand the intent of junk food adverts. Marketers know this, which is why they often zero down on shaping the new generation of consumers. This led to adopting new approaches and employing new strategies, with fast food restaurants spending over $5 billion on advertising to children and teens in 2019. 

As for the strategies, junk food marketing is often shown more frequently around children’s activities, such as prime time for families watching TV, within gaming content, or when watching YouTube. It can include celebrity endorsements, attractive characters, interactive games, and vivid visual elements, making it fun and memorable. Walking through shops, you’ll notice that most junk food is displayed on lower shelves – right at children’s eye level. 

As we learn more about various forms of junk food marketing, you’ll discover how ads and strategies have become increasingly sophisticated trying to grab the attention and appetite of young consumers.

Traditional Advertising on Radio and TV

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, children and teens aged 8–18 watched an average of 4.5 hours of TV every day for entertainment in 2021. That habit fell by 20% in 2022, reducing TV viewership among youngsters to 3.5 hours. However, the so-called “family viewing prime time” between 6–9 p.m. still offers plenty of time to advertise junk food to the youngest customers.

TV ads, with their vivid visuals and catchy tunes, are highly effective at influencing children’s food preferences. Studies show children see about 13 food ads every day, while teens see 16. Only 1 out of 10 of these ads are for healthy foods like fruit and vegetables – the rest are all for junk food. These can come in the form of short ad segments slotted into breaks in favorite shows, but also as product placement marketing in movies, TV shows, music videos, and other forms of entertainment.

Unlike regular advertising, product placements can make a specific brand part of a story, which makes the products seem more attractive and prestigious. These range from very subtle, like Oreos in Parent Trap, to in-your-face obvious promotions, for example, the whole McDonald’s set in the second season of Loki. As a result, children feel more inclined to copy whatever their favorite characters are doing, which increases sales and brings in new customers. 

Radio advertising remains a popular junk food marketing medium, too, because it can fill in the gaps when children aren’t watching TV or scrolling social media. This maximizes the reach each brand can get and increases their exposure and is especially effective if a junk food company has a catchy jingle, tune, or catchphrase that’s easy to remember and repeat. 

All these combined, create a perfect ground for raising a new generation of customers. Consistent exposure to junk food ads, especially from similar brands, also ensures children instantly learn to recognize them in real life. According to a report by Compass, 70% of three-year-olds recognize the McDonald’s symbol, but only half of them know their last name – and that’s just one brand. Studies also show that ads for junk food often increase the number of unhealthy food choices kids make within as little as 30 minutes after watching them. 

Social Media Strategies

Almost 5 billion people use social media daily, so it’s not surprising that junk food marketing has spread across popular platforms. According to a study, young people see various junk food marketing on social media anywhere between 30–189 times per week. A majority of these ads contained promotions for high-sugar products and fast foods. 

Experts agree junk food marketing on social media is much more worrying than regular advertising because it helps brands build a two-way form of communication with children. Companies now actively involve younger audiences in their campaigns using competitions and giveaways. Examples include asking children to upload a selfie with their favorite junk food in hopes of winning a yearly supply of that product. 

Influencer marketing is also becoming more used across social media, making junk food promotions even more worrisome. Though you can find an occasional influencer with a background in nutrition, they rarely agree to promote junk food. This means any fast food or snack promotions you see online come from people who don’t fully understand what they’re promoting or how it could affect their audience. 

Many studies show just how influential these promotions are. In 2017, around 42% of branded influencer videos promoted candy, while another 32% included sweet/salty snacks, sugary drinks, and ice cream. As a result, children and teens who were exposed to these advertising videos, consumed around 26% more calories than those who didn’t watch the same content.

This trend is particularly visible on YouTube. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 90% of food promotions on YouTube are for types of junk food. Just a quick search on the platform reveals hundreds of videos of kids unboxing new Happy Meal toys, reviewing new Hershey’s chocolates, and receiving PR packages from big junk food brands. And since influencers often feel like a “friend” to viewers, they’re more likely to convince them to make a purchase and bring profit to the advertised company. 

It’s becoming a huge concern for parents, but it’s almost impossible to regulate. YouTube banned food ads popping up during videos for kids in 2020, but it couldn’t stop in-video promotions. Influencers also don’t always voluntarily disclose collaborations with junk food brands, making it difficult to pinpoint what’s an ad and what’s regular content. And even if the government decided to put stricter regulations in place, influencer marketing isn’t always subject to them.

We decided to check what YouTube marketing looks like for ourselves. We watched over 78 hours of YouTube videos aimed at kids in the US, France, Germany, and Spain, which worked out to 37 videos for each country. Our research confirmed that the video platform doesn’t show junk food ads to children – but it does allow other, sometimes concerning promotions.

According to our findings, children in all countries we checked are mostly exposed to adult marketing. A majority of ads we came across were for car dealerships, laptops, insurance offers, and holidays. YouTube Spain and Germany seemed to promote new games on various platforms, including Nintendo Switch and PC, many of which promoted content that was unsuitable for viewers as young as the videos we viewed were intended for. Occasionally, we stumbled upon an ad for another child-friendly YouTube channel, but it rarely seemed connected to the topic our current video was about. These videos sometimes included product placement of toys or games. We also came across ads for products like Disney+ subscriptions. 

These results can be interpreted as both good and bad. It’s good that children won’t be exposed to more junk food ads than they already are, but exposing young viewers to any form of marketing isn’t ideal. Studies show it very often creates untrue biases in developing minds, which they take with them into adulthood. These perceptions are often very difficult to change, forcing a specific outlook on certain parts of life. The proliferation of gaming ads is also worrying given the research showing the addictive nature of gaming and its impacts. 

Advertising also aims to evoke emotions in its viewers. As an adult, these can be easy to understand and handle, but children often have a harder time doing so. Since they can take situations in ads very literally, they may get scared, hurt, or even traumatized. It could potentially encourage them to perform dangerous stunts, too, depending on what they watched. 

Online Junk Food Marketing

Aside from social media marketing, junk food brands often utilize other forms of internet content to advertise their products. Gaming platforms are often the main focus, with some companies creating their own branded mini-games. These are usually very simple and involve creating a sundae or shooting burgers out of a cannon. However, they generate higher engagement and create memorable experiences children are likely to recall later on. 

Even without branded games, children often see banner advertising on the sides, top, and bottom of websites, like gaming platforms or blogs. It’s a clever way to blend marketing with entertainment, making it harder for kids (and sometimes parents) to recognize it as advertising.

During the pandemic, some big food companies also started advertising on learning platforms. This caused quite a stir. Health experts and even some schools expressed their concerns and lack of approval about unhealthy snacks mixing with education. Not only is it distracting, but it encourages children to think about junk food when they may not be even hungry. Plus, some families can’t pay to get rid of these ads, which means some kids get more of this ad bombardment than others.

The good news is, after many people raised their concerns, junk food companies agreed to stop advertising on learning platforms. It’s a step towards keeping online learning spaces just for studying, without tempting ads for junk food. But it’s a heads-up for all of us to keep an eye on where advertisements are popping up, especially in places where kids should be able to learn and play online​.

Junk Food Marketing and Digital Safety Concerns

Junk food marketing in the digital space, particularly on platforms frequented by children, brings digital safety concerns into focus. For example, children might be exposed to targeted advertising on educational websites or apps, where they’re more vulnerable to persuasive marketing tactics. This exposure raises concerns about children’s online privacy and the potential for manipulative advertising practices.

A VPN free trial can be a helpful tool in exploring the benefits of using cybersecurity tools like a VPN for your family. It lets you experience firsthand how anonymizing your internet connection and location can limit targeted advertising. This can help you ensure your children will be less likely to encounter personalized junk food ads based on their online behavior or location, offering an extra layer of digital safety.

Junk Food Marketing Across the World 

United States

The US is the most food-obsessed market globally, with the 12th highest obesity rate in the world. More than 80% of food advertising in the country promotes fast food, sugary drinks, and unhealthy snacks, with companies spending a whopping $10 billion on marketing every year. To put that into perspective, the US government allocates a budget of around $1 billion to promote healthy lifestyles and prevent chronic diseases. 

While all children and teens are vulnerable to junk food marketing, research suggests marketers often target families from poor socioeconomic backgrounds as well as Hispanic and Black communities. In 2021, Black children viewed up to 21% more food and beverage ads than their White peers, while food companies increased their budgets allocated for Spanish-speaking advertisements. This marketing focus stems from the fact that children of color are less likely to not have access to affordable healthy options.

Another issue with junk food marketing in the US is the misinformation present in a lot of ads. Many companies use celebrity or athlete endorsements, perpetuating the idea that their products are healthier than they are. They also normalize consuming higher amounts of junk food while watching sports or TV, further contributing to the growing obesity pandemic. 

Some junk food ads in the US don’t even have anything to do with promoted products – for example, the infamous Carl’s Junior ad where Paris Hilton was washing a car in her bikini. It seems that marketers focus more on making brands memorable instead of actually showcasing their products. This is why many US junk food ads have been banned in countries like New Zealand, the UK, or Australia. 

These advertising strategies contribute to the higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease among children in the US. The issue is compounded by the fact that children, particularly teenagers, have difficulty resisting the short-term rewards offered by junk food, despite understanding that these foods are unhealthy. This continuous exposure to junk food ads is shaping children’s norms and expectations about what foods are acceptable to eat regularly.

United Kingdom

Back in 2020, the UK government announced an ambitious plan to halve child obesity in the country by 2030, but we’re yet to see anything put into place. Despite promising announcements, including banning junk food advertisements online and on TV before 9 p.m., every bill proposed so far has been delayed. This means the obesity rate continues to rise, while cries for help grow louder than ever. 

Junk food brands are thriving in this environment. Research shows that the top 18 producers of confectionery, chips, and sugary drinks pay over $190 million on advertising every year. That’s around 30 times more than what the UK government spends on promoting healthy eating and exercise. The push for junk food marketing is clearly visible through statistics as experts estimate children under 16 saw 15 billion junk food ads online in 2019, compared to “just” 700 million in 2018. 

Families of poor socioeconomic backgrounds feel the lack of care the most. Just like in the US, junk food marketing in the UK focuses heavily on more deprived areas. According to Public Health England, the poorest areas in England usually have up to five times more fast food hotspots. They offer food that’s up to three times cheaper than healthy alternatives, heavily influencing people’s food choices and encouraging unhealthy eating habits from a young age. 

European Union

The trend of marketing junk food to children carries on through the EU member countries, with many now dealing with an obesity rate of over 30%. The most affected countries lie in the southern part of the continent, such as Spain, Greece, and Italy. The issue is so severe that the Mediterranean diet is being called a thing of the past as countries around the sea famous for healthy eating practices are now facing a huge obesity issue due to Westernized dietary habits.

Despite these growing issues, the EU still doesn’t restrict junk food marketing in its member states. Instead, it relies heavily on voluntary regulations, hoping junk food brands themselves will follow their conscience and code of conduct. While stricter food regulations in Europe make junk food a bit “better” than in the US, it’s still causing a huge surge in childhood obesity and related health issues.

Looking at specific member states, the problem ranges in severity. Children in Germany view an average of 15 junk food ads every day. Though it seems like a lot, it’s nothing compared to Spain, where young viewers see around 24 ads daily — amounting to almost 9,000 commercials viewed in a year. These statistics only cover traditional advertising, so this number is likely much higher if you include influencer promotions and endorsements. 

Long-Term Side Effects of Children Eating Too Much Junk Food

Junk food marketing is very successful, driving sales for many brands every year. Constant exposure to energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods leads children to develop life-long dietary habits that are hard to break. Because of junk food marketing, around 40% of calories children now consume come from sugar and saturated fat. Additionally, 60% of children eat too little fruit, while 95% eat too few vegetables. 

Why is it that a short ad can have such a lasting impact? It’s all mind games. According to Cancer Research UK, watching any food content makes children (and adults alike) feel hungry, pushing them to snack between mealtimes. It usually also impacts their food preferences, as marketing teams spend a lot of time and money making their products look delicious on screen. 

As a result of the increased calorie consumption, children are putting on a concerning amount of weight and facing many serious health issues. Lack of proper nourishment and high intake of sugar, salt, and fat lead to tooth decay in one in three children. As a result, more children have to undergo surgical extractions. Too much junk food can lead to far worse consequences, such as high blood pressure, bone issues, diabetes, fatty liver, and even a stroke or heart attack, which until recently were considered “old age” issues. 

It’s not just school-age children and teens who are at risk. Some parents begin exposing their children to junk food when they’re as young as five months. According to a UNICEF study, almost two in three children between six months and three years of age don’t get appropriate nutrition due to overconsumption of junk food. This can heavily stunt their development and lead to poor brain growth, slow learning, low immunity, risks of increased infections, and, in some cases, death. 

These effects are most likely to last a lifetime, too. Research shows that around 55% of children who suffer from being overweight or obese retain their weight into adulthood as it’s difficult to change your dietary habits. Childhood obesity also carries long-term mental health issues, such as low self-esteem, depression, mood swings, and eating disorders. 

The Role and Lack of Legislation in Controlling Childhood Obesity

It’s easy to blame junk food marketing for making children overweight. After all, the statistics are there, showing just how influential these ads can be for young minds. However, it’s not just the marketing that’s at fault here: it’s a byproduct of a lack of appropriate legislation, health education, and public awareness of the problem. 

Unfortunately, few countries take proactive steps to tackle the underlying causes of childhood obesity, like regulating junk food marketing or making healthy options affordable. This doesn’t mean governments aren’t trying – but they could be doing a lot more than they are. 

Tackling Obesity in the United States

The obesity epidemic in the US is prevalent, but it doesn’t seem to concern as many people as it should. Despite calls for action from many directions over the years, the government has yet to take major steps toward tackling child obesity and overconsumption in general. The country has no country-wide bans or restrictions on marketing junk food to children, and it doesn’t do much when it comes to promoting healthy lifestyles.

Michelle Obama tried to encourage better nutrition and promote physical activity among children with her Let’s Move program launched back in 2010. Unfortunately, the move was doomed from the start as it didn’t receive much funding, despite being led by the First Lady. It also lacked knowledgeable specialists who could help shape the program into a successful campaign.

Some people also decided to boycott the Let’s Move initiative simply because it was led by Michelle Obama herself. The program received mixed responses from the start, almost pre-deciding its success – or lack thereof. Despite the goal to decrease childhood obesity by 5% by 2030, the campaign is yet to see any results. 

Some US states implemented sugar tax within their borders, but it’s not a federal-level legislation. These taxes have had varying degrees of success. In some cities, such as Boulder, Philadelphia, Oakland, San Francisco, and Seattle, the introduction of sugar taxes reduced purchases of sugary beverages by as much as 33%. However, the impact of these taxes on overall public health is still a matter of study and debate.

The lack of legislation around junk food marketing and distribution means some residents are tackling obesity with medication. In 2023, we saw huge shortages of Ozempic, a drug used for diabetes with a slimming side effect, but it’s only one of many drugs overweight patients tend to reach for. If not regulated, this could create an issue of potential medication misuse and addiction.

Legislative Moves against Obesity in the United Kingdom

The UK takes a more proactive approach to tackling childhood obesity. The government introduced a series of new measures to restrict junk food access over the past decade, alongside many celebrities campaigning for healthier lifestyles among children. The most important changes include restricting unhealthy foods displayed by the tills, mandatory calorie labels on restaurant menus, and a traffic-light labeling system on all products. 

Additionally, the UK government introduced a tax on sugary drinks in 2018. The new law means that any producer or importer of a sugary drink must pay a levy to offset the damages. The levy doesn’t apply to drinks with less than 5g of sugar per 100 ml, but it can go up to 24p per liter on soft drinks that contain more than 8g of sugar per 100 ml. So far, it has been a huge success as the total sugar sold in soft drinks by retailers and manufacturers decreased by 35.4% between 2015 and 2019.

When promoting healthy lifestyles at schools, the UK government has also been making some improvements, largely due to Jamie Oliver’s nutritional campaigns. So far, schools have had to remove junk food vending machines, start offering nutrition classes to pupils, and adhere to new school meal guidance. These include swapping sugary drinks for healthy alternatives, limiting fried food to twice a week, and offering a variety of vegetables with every meal.

Sadly, the nutritional regulations are rarely enforced by the government or local authorities. This means schools’ compliance varies heavily and depends on various factors, like budget and funding, which are often lacking. 

More recently, the UK government announced its plan to ban junk food ads online and on TV before 9 p.m. This would be a monumental move and a first step towards restricting junk food marketing reach. However, the bill has been postponed multiple times, with the current implementation date set to October 2025. 

The proposed legislation keeps undergoing new revisions, which severely changed it since it was first announced. Its current form allows brand-only ads, which creates a loophole for junk food companies to play promotions before 9 p.m. as long as they don’t show any food. If a junk food brand has a website or a social media account, they’d be free to market their products there regardless of the time. Smaller businesses would also be exempt from the restriction, as would billboard, radio, and poster advertising.

Junk Food Marketing Regulations in the European Union

Just like the US and the UK, the EU relies on hopes companies will self-regulate when it comes to junk food marketing. However, the union encouraged member states to follow its action plan to tackle children’s obesity in 2014–2020. The proposed guidelines included addressing unhealthy eating patterns, physical activity patterns, sedentary lifestyles, and parental socioeconomic status. 

Many EU member states also tackle their childhood obesity issue with their legislation. This differs depending on which country you’re looking at as some prioritize promoting healthy lifestyles more than others. 

France has one of the most successful programs, EPODE, which translates to “Together Let’s Prevent Childhood Obesity.” It looks at every aspect of a child’s life to identify the root causes of obesity. It also involves everyone in the child’s life when it comes to implementing changes, including parents, schools, doctors, communities, and even businesses. The program is credited with being one of the main reasons why France has some of the lowest child obesity rates in Europe.

Additionally, the French government banned fizzy drinks and snack vending machines in schools, as well as misleading TV and print advertising. It imposed a 1.5% tax on junk food companies that don’t promote healthy eating. More recently, the country also decided to roll out a new treatment program for children who are already overweight. It will include drafting a special diet, physical activity plan, and psychological counseling. 

The German government often faces backlash from the country’s residents and corporations whenever it tries to implement strict restrictions on junk food and obesity. Because of this, current legislation on the topic is quite vague. The country has some dietary and physical activity guidelines for children and teens, informative food nutrition labels on products, and lenient restrictions on junk food advertising. These are still only voluntary, though. 

Finally, Spain recently introduced a new plan which aims to reduce childhood obesity in the country by 25% by 2030. The plan will follow found pillars of healthy living habits, like physical activity, healthy eating, sleep, and emotional well-being. As part of that plan, the country is looking to introduce an advertising ban to stop the promotion of unhealthy foods and drinks.

How to Protect Your Children from Junk Food Marketing

As a parent, you can take certain precautions and steps to shield your children from the effects of junk food marketing:

  1. Lead with knowledge: Teach your children about the importance of healthy eating. Explain how while all foods can play a role in a healthy lifestyle, some foods are better for their bodies and minds and will make them feel better. Many governments offer resources to help parents, like the UK’s Start for Life program for babies and toddlers. You can also show them the tactics used in junk food marketing, like catchy ads or fun packaging, so they can recognize them and make informed choices.
  2. Offer healthy alternatives at home: Keep your home stocked with tasty, healthy snacks. This way, when kids see tempting junk food ads, they have better options at hand. Introduce them to fruits, nuts, and homemade treats that are both delicious and nutritious.
  3. Limit screen time: Since a lot of junk food marketing happens through screens, limit your children’s access to it. Outdoor play and other activities keep them away from constant advertising and encourage physical movement.
  4. Teach how to be a critical viewer: When watching TV or browsing the internet with your kids, discuss the ads you see. Asking questions like “Why do you think they want you to buy this?” can help encourage critical thinking about marketing tactics.
  5. Be a role model: Children often mimic adults, so show them you also choose healthy options. When you make good food choices and limit your junk food intake, they’re more likely to do the same.
  6. Promote physical activity: Encourage regular exercise to balance their lifestyle. Activities like sports, hiking, or cycling are not only healthy but also fun ways to divert their attention from junk food advertising and cravings.
  7. Participate in school and community programs: Get involved in your child’s school nutrition programs. Advocate for healthy meals and snacks, and support initiatives that limit junk food marketing in and around schools.

Remember, the goal is not to ban junk food entirely but to create a balanced approach to both eating and media consumption. With patience and consistency, you can significantly reduce the impact of junk food marketing on your children.

Moving Forward with Junk Food Marketing

Though junk food marketers only want to promote their products and not cause long-term health issues, their strategies, especially in the digital realm, significantly influence children’s dietary choices and health. From TV ads to social media campaigns, the persuasive power of junk food marketing is formidable, often overshadowing efforts to promote healthy eating in every country.

The struggle against childhood obesity is not just a local or national issue – it’s a global concern that requires a collective, international approach. Countries around the world, including the US, the UK, and EU member states, are grappling with this problem in different ways. From France’s EPODE to the UK’s proposed advertising bans, there are efforts to mitigate the impact of junk food marketing. However, the effectiveness of these measures varies, and there’s still much work to be done.

To truly tackle this issue, we need a coordinated international response. It could include stricter regulations on junk food advertising, especially in digital spaces frequented by children, and global standards for marketing practices. It’s also vital to enhance public awareness and education about the effects of junk food marketing. By working together, governments, health organizations, educators, and parents can create a healthier future for our children.

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