Inside the Mix

Without consistency at every stage, efforts to market healthy foods to kids have less impact

Without consistency at every stage, efforts to market healthy foods to kids have less impact

Kids love cookies.

They know the brands they like, they recognize the packaging of their favorite cookies in the grocery store from an aisle's distance, and they have their favorite ways of eating them. Whether or not they can sing the jingle from their favorite cookie's TV ad will not stop them loving cookies.

A study by IPG media agency Universal McCann - "Nutrition and obesity: What does mom really think?" - shows that only 6% of mothers see a government ban on "junk food" advertising to children as necessary. However, 80% feel that food companies should be promoting healthy eating and more active lifestyles to children.

Which is what Kraft did recently with its announcement that it would curb advertising products to kids under 12 that didn't meet certain nutritional guidelines, a step which some commentators say likely preempts government restrictions on the practice.

The debate over advertising to kids has raged in the UK for years. Last year, the government issued a White Paper that didn't ban the practice, but encouraged the industry to self-regulate. If it failed to do so to a satisfactory level, then a ban would be enforced by 2007. Several food manufacturers have addressed the issue at source, improving products rather than restricting advertising. The best scenario for both the government and marketers is that their healthy lifestyle agendas align closely enough for one to have a multiplier effect on the other.

But TV advertising is such a small part of the pie. Ironically, the lament of so many marketers now is how hard it is to target kids, who are multitasking to mind-boggling degrees. Even if you take advertising away, what about word of mouth, peer pressure, parental purchasing choices, online viral games, and in-store marketing?

Kraft did not return calls for comment for this column, but a look at its website's kids section finds an admirable slant towards healthy snacks, with fruit being the centerpiece of many listed. But just looking at the nutritional information for a random recipe - "ham and cheddar in a loaf" - tells an inconsistent story. While 330 calories and 13 grams of fat isn't a killer portion, a single serving contains 1,510 mg of sodium. The new US guidelines prescribe under 2,300 mg of sodium a day - for adults, mind you. There are also a number of interactive games squarely aimed at kids based on Oscar Mayer wieners - and while Kraft didn't mention whether these would be off the advertising list, it's hard to imagine that they meet the health guidelines that Kraft has set for itself to gauge whether or not a product will be advertised.

If Kraft is serious about wanting kids to turn down its unhealthy products, it needs to back that messaging up at all stages of the marketing process, from packaging through to its online games. And what Kraft, and other food manufacturers also need to remember is that when you successfully aim a message at a child, you're also going to hit dozens, if not hundreds more, given the way their influence networks operate. It's up to Kraft to make sure that message is the right one - and a consistent one.

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