Selling Crap to Kids, Part 2

Moving on to 2013 and the further depredations visited upon the trusting nature of children… A University of Liverpool study, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, showed that “celebrity endorsement of a food product encourages children to eat more of the endorsed product.” Pretty much everybody knew that already, but it is always reassuring to have academic confirmation. At the time, former soccer player/current TV sports commentator Gary Lineker had been speaking commercially for Walker’s Crisps for almost 20 years.

The study demonstrated, for the first time, that the influence of the celebrity extended even further than expected and prompted the children to eat the endorsed product even when they saw the celebrity outside of any actual promotion for the brand.

The researchers discovered that even when famous people appear on TV in a different capacity than the one that children usually see them in, the kids will still identify stars with the snacks they promote, and consume more of the stuff. In other words, the association would carry over from a familiar context to a different one. And by extrapolation, it appears that the more famous the celebrity is, the more detrimental their influence is to the eating preferences of kids.

Genre of deception

Then, there are the devious advertising gambits that play on children’s weaknesses, like their drive to conform, fit in, and be accepted. What do most kids love? Cartoon characters and other easily recognized imaginary media figures. The food industry got into the habit of using those characters to market allegedly healthful products to the kids, who would in turn nag their parents to put those brightly colored packages in the shopping cart. Susan Linn and Michele Simon wrote,

For young children, branding even trumps taste. Preschool children report that junk food in McDonald’s packaging tastes better than food in plain wrapping — even if it’s the same food. Similar studies show the same results for food packaging featuring media characters.

And is it okay to use beloved cartoon characters to sell organic, totally non-harmful food? Well, if it works, why not? But does the end justify the means? Don’t lies always lead to more lies?

Some advocates argue that deceiving children to eat healthy food is a good strategy. But such tactics are actually harmful. A primary goal for advocates should be for children to develop a healthy relationship to food. Foisting character-branded products on children undermines that effort.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Celebrity endorsement encourages children to eat junk food,”, 03/08/13
Source: “The Dark Side of Marketing Healthy Food to Children,”, 06/17/13
Images by Kulasekaran Seshadri, theilr, Kari Salomon/CC BY-SA 2.0

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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