The number of diseases among our children has been on the increase at an alarming rate. This is according to an article titled, “Deteriorating children’s health isn’t a mystery” by Terry Schraeder, an internist at Mt. Auburn Hospital and clinical assistant at the Warren Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University. Today, children are suffering from diseases that were once known to affect adults only. The article by Schraeder left me with one question in my mind: Who is to blame? Is it the parents, the children themselves, the food industry, or the media? In trying to answer this question, I became convinced that the fast-food industry and the media are the biggest culprits.
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The exposure of children to an advertisement has generally been associated with higher rates of demand for particular goods. Many consumers agree that the amount of time spent watching television and being exposed to the media in general increases their intake of foods, drinks, and other items such as toys. This is because television and media are rife with advertisements of items which in turn lure consumers to purchase them. The effect of advertisements on the increased purchase of goods is even more pronounced on children because children lack the maturity needed to restrain themselves from purchasing items that are harmful to their health. It has indeed been noted that during television viewing, over 40 % of children ask their parents to purchase food items they had seen advertised. This is according to a research article titled “Impact of food advertising on food purchases by students in primary and secondary schools in south-eastern Poland” by Mazur et al. (2008).
The fast-food industry has taken advantage of the impact of advertisement on consumer behavior. The industry, therefore, employs numerous marketing strategies – such as emotional appeal and marketing fun – that attract the attention of children and turn them into their loyal customers. Many emotional appeals are used in television marketing for fast foods, including associating the advertised product with athletic ability and being “cool.” Advertisers also combine production techniques and emotional appeals to make food adverts especially persuasive to children. According to a report titled, “Marketing and advertising: harmful to children’s health,” by McLellan (2002), it was reported that 50% of sampled food adverts (especially fast foods) used animation and fun/happiness appeals.
The advertisement of food through entertainment is known as ‘eatertainment’ in the world of media. Several features characterize this marketing tendency and include the offer of premiums when a product is purchased; the inclusion of licensed characters on packaged items; the creation of unique meals by restaurants specially made for children; and the design of products using fun as the main theme. Apart from depicting the foods in a fun manner and enhancing their taste and appearance, the fast-food industry also incorporates play as part of its marketing efforts aimed at children. This is done with the knowledge that children enjoying playing and therefore it is made to be part and parcel of consumption. Play in fast food restaurants is of a wide variety and caters to the needs of children with different personalities; from the outgoing children to the most reserved children. The outgoing children, for instance, have the option of building blocks together in a challenging game or opening gifts together whereas the more reserved children can be engaged in an interactive game with a product. Such activities are an indirect means through which fast-food restaurants promote their brands to children.
The brand value may therefore be viewed by children as a special way of fulfilling some of their social needs such as interaction and meeting new friends. Indeed, children who insist on taking their meals at certain food joints may have no interest in the food offered there but rather in the gifts, games, and fun activities, they will encounter there. As this process is continued, children are more likely to develop a preference for certain foods offered by the fast-food restaurants they frequent for fun activities. Unfortunately, it is a known fact that fast foods are not healthy for children because they are laden with high content of fats, sugars, and salts.
Children are a vulnerable population. Unlike adults, children lack the cognitive abilities to comprehend the nature of advertising and lack the maturity needed to make wise decisions that influence their health or life. Maybe it is time for the adults to step in and intervene lest our children perish in a sea of diseases. Most importantly, it is time for the fast-food industry to take responsible marketing seriously. But will this ever happen?