Marketing & Consumerism - Special Issues for Young Children

Parents of young children have an important role to play in protecting their kids from invasive marketing and in educating them about advertising from an early age.

young child

According to researcher Blandína Šramová, “young children have difficulty distinguishing between advertising and reality in advertisements.”[1] They are, however, heavily targeted by advertisers. A 1998 memo from the snack company Nabisco made it clear that in marketers’ eyes, by the time kids became teens it was too late to start advertising to them: “It is important to note that since taste preferences are determined early, a great deal of effort focuses even younger than teen. Product placement in movies, music, games and sports with teen appeal were areas of profound importance to all these marketers, with both Burger King and McDonald’s focusing on children’s movies and TV characters.”[2]

Kids 11 and under wield $1.2 trillion in direct and indirect purchasing power. This has consequences on their family’s spending habits:[3]

  • Three in four parents say their kids influence purchasing decisions.
  • 87 percent of parents identify what they need to buy, then discuss it with the rest of the family, including their children.
  • 60 percent of children say they are aware of the household budget.
  • 87 percent of kids remember TV commercials, causing 77 percent of parents to claim their children ask for items they’ve seen in those advertisements.
  • Parents spend 60 percent more when their children are involved in the purchasing decisions.[4]

As a result, industry spending on advertising to children has exploded over the past two decades. In the United States alone, it is estimated companies will spend $389.5 billion, which is an increase of seven percent from 2019 when $363.4 billion was spent.[5]

According to the Canadian Toy Testing Council, the biggest area of concern with toy ads in Canada is exaggeration. Young children often think a toy actually can do a lot more than it can because of the way toys are portrayed in advertisements.

These concerns have led some jurisdictions to ban all advertising to children. Quebec has banned print and broadcast advertising aimed at kids under thirteen. In 1991, Sweden banned advertisements aimed at children under 12.[6]

Effects of materialism

“Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you’re a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that.”
Nancy Shalek (former president, Grey Advertising)

“Advertising is the propaganda of capitalism.”
Jean Kilbourne

There are also concerns surrounding the effect excessive materialism can have on the development of children’s self-image and values. In her 2013 study on advertising and materialism in children,[7] Suzanna Opree found that “children that were exposed to more advertisements had a greater desire for the things they saw being advertised and therefore were determined to be more materialistic than those children who were exposed to less,”[8] while another study found a relationship between advertising, materialism and conflict between parents and children.[9]

There is strong evidence that materialism simply makes us unhappy. Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick, who has studied the effect of advertising on happiness, says that “If you doubled advertising spending, it would result in a 3% drop in life satisfaction. That’s about half the drop in life satisfaction you’d see in a person who had gotten divorced or about one-third the drop you’d see in someone who’d become unemployed. We have a lot of experience working out how people are affected by bad life events, and advertising has sizable consequences even when compared with them.”[10]

Junk food advertising and nutrition concerns

Online advertising is the fastest growing venue for food marketers – in 2017, American food companies spent $10.9 billion each on food advertising[11] and Canadian kids see more than twenty-five million junk food ads online every year.[12] Most food marketed to kids is high in sugar or fat, low in desirable nutrients or both.[13] Of the four to seven food ads Canadian kids see per hour on commercial television,[14] roughly 40 percent are for unhealthy snacks.[15] As a result, young people have come to feel that “kids’ food is junk food” and that healthful food is only for adults.[16]

Influencers like Charli D’Amelio promote unhealthy food and beverages, as well: the drink named after her at Dunkin’ Donuts has 250 calories and 50 grams of sugar in a medium size and 340 calories with 68 grams of sugar in a large – almost three times the maximum recommended by the U.S Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.[17] Kids who see influencers with unhealthy snacks eat a third more calories from junk food and a quarter more calories overall than those that don’t.[18] Junk food ads are also found on many educational websites, such as the educational game site ABCYa!.[19]

With increasing pressure to ban or limit unhealthy food advertising to kids in traditional media, marketers are working hard to engage youth online, away from the mediating influence of their parents. For example, Candy Crush Saga, a popular free game, features different varieties of junk food and sweets in their games. The game relies on advertisements to generate their revenue and thus features marketing ploys aimed at youth consumers.[20]

Fast food chains spend more than $3 billion a year on advertising, much of it aimed at children. To directly target children, the fast food industry uses more than traditional commercials. Restaurants offer incentives such as playgrounds, contests, clubs, games, free toys and other merchandise related to movies, TV shows and even sports leagues.

McDonald’s happy meals are internationally renowned for having a small toy inside the meal that lures children and adults into buying the food. Disney ended its toy partnership with McDonalds in 2006 [21] after backlash about rising childhood obesity, but renewed it in 2018 with the release of the movie The Incredibles 2.[22] As author Eric Schlosser explains in his book Fast Food Nation, “America’s fast food culture has become indistinguishable from the popular culture of its children.”

According to the Canadian Childhood Obesity Foundation, as of 2019 there are over 150 million children in the world who are obese and they believe this will rise to 206 million in 2025.[23] The connection between food advertising and children’s eating habits has been well documented: a 2018 study found that 23 percent of all the ads on children’s television in the US were for food and beverages[24] and a correlation has been identified between children seeing these fast food advertisements and childhood obesity.[25] 99 percent of these food advertisements did not meet the nutrition standards outlined by Obama Administration Interagency working group on food marketed to kids.[26]

Fast food chains use an average of 59% of their marketing dollars to “acquire toys, games, puzzles…to distribute with a children’s meal.”[27] This child-directed marketing is especially harmful when the toy is linked to a popular celebrity or cartoon character, which has large influences on what a child chooses to eat because it looks fun. Almost 70% of fast food advertisements, monitored over a one-year period, used toys and games to promote their product, which influences a child’s perceived taste of an unhealthy product.[28]

Marketing toys based on teen and adult entertainment

Promotional banner for the movie "Venom".

Marketing of toys for young children that are based on restricted movies and ‘Mature’ rated video games is a common industry practice. In its 2009 report to Congress, the FTC recommended restricting marketing of PG-13 movies to young children directly and through tie-ins with foods, toys and other licensed products.[29] Similarly, in 2019, the Australian Council on Children and the Media complained about inappropriate trailers being shown during prime time TV family viewing. A movie clip from the PG-13 film Venom was shown during the Australian Football League grand final, watched by 3.3 million people nationwide.[30]

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[1] Šramová, B. (2014). Media literacy and marketing consumerism focused on children. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 141, 1025-1030.

[2] Quoted in Moss, M. (2021). Hooked: food, free will, and how the food giants exploit our addictions. Random House.

[3] Viacom Staff (2018) Kidfluence: How kids influence buying behaviour. Viacom. Retrieved from

[4] Ibid.

[5] Press Release (2020) Winterberry group research identifies the significant ahead for identity in marketing and advertising. Winterberry Group. Retrieved from

[6] Lembke, J (2018) Why Sweden bans advertising targeted at children. The Culture Trip. Retrieved from

[7] Opree, S et al (2013) Children’s advertising exposure, advertised product desire, and materialism: A longitudinal study. University of Amsterdam. 41(5) 717-735

[8] Penn State University (2016) Advertising’s effect on materialism. Retrieved from

[9] Buijzen, M., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2003). The effects of television advertising on materialism, parent–child conflict, and unhappiness: A review of research. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24(4), 437-456.

[10] Torres, N. (2020) Advertising Makes Us Unhappy. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

[11] Harris, J et al (2019) Rudd Report. Retrieved from

[12] Chai, C. (2017) Canadian kids bombarded with more than 25M junk food and drink ads online every year. Global News. Retrieved from

[13] Rachel, P. (2017). Food marketing to children in Canada: a settings-based scoping review on exposure, power and impact. Health promotion and chronic disease prevention in Canada: research, policy and practice, 37(9), 274.

[14] Potvin Kent, M., Smith, J. R., Pauzé, E., & L'Abbé, M. (2018). The effectiveness of the food and beverage industry's self-established uniform nutrition criteria at improving the healthfulness of food advertising viewed by Canadian children on television. The international journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity, 15(1), 57. doi:10.1186/s12966-018-0694-0

[15] Appel, J et al (2015) Snack F.A.C.T.S 2015. University of Connecticut. Retrieved from

[16] Rachel, P. (2017). Food marketing to children in Canada: a settings-based scoping review on exposure, power and impact. Health promotion and chronic disease prevention in Canada: research, policy and practice, 37(9), 274.

[17] Kim, D. (2021) Are Junk Food Companies Using TikTok Influencers to Target Kids? Civil Eats. Retrieved from

[18] Coates, A. E., Hardman, C. A., Halford, J. C., Christiansen, P., & Boyland, E. J. (2019). Social media influencer marketing and children’s food intake: a randomized trial. Pediatrics, 143(4).

[19] Emond, J. A., et al. (2020) Unhealthy Food Marketing on Commercial Educational Websites: Remote Learning and Gaps in Regulation. American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

[20] Harris, J et al (2019) Rudd Report. Retrieved from

[21] Klein, K (2018) Op-ed: The problem with Happy Meals isn’t the food. LA Times. Retrieved from

[22] Whitten, S (2018) McDonald’s reunites with Disney on Happy Meals after more than a decade apart. CNBC. Retrieved from

[23] Atlas of Childhood Obesity. October 2019. World Obesity Federation.

[24] Cronin, J et al (2019) No decline in junk food advertising on children’s television, according to new CSPI analysis. Center for science in the public interest. Retrieved from’s-television-according-new-cspi-analysis-20191104

[25] Gottesdiener, L (2012). 7 disturbing trends in junk food advertising for children. Salon. Retrieved from

[26] Cronin, J et al (2019) No decline in junk food advertising on children’s television, according to new CSPI analysis. Center for science in the public interest. Retrieved from’s-television-according-new-cspi-analysis-20191104

[27] Healthy Eating Research (2014). Food Marketing: Using toys to market childrens’ meals. Retrieved from

[28] Healthy Eating Research (2014). Food Marketing: Using toys to market childrens’ meals. Retrieved from Healthy Eating Research (2014). Food Marketing: Using toys to market childrens’ meals. Retrieved from

[29] Federal Trade Commission (2009). FTC Renews Call to Entertainment Industry to Curb Marketing of Violent Entertainment to Children.

[30] Baker, R (2019) Media Watchdog Anger: ‘Teeth bared, saliva drooling’ film character too much for our kids during footy. The Advertiser. Retrieved from