Selling Crap to Kids, Part 5

This sequence of posts is a historical overview of the food industry’s ambitious project of brainwashing children to nag their parents to buy them the worst possible excuses for food. In Part 1, we looked at the good guys’ decades-long effort to ban the advertising of such products on television, while manufacturers continued to ramp up the proportions of sugar and salt in their breakfast offerings.

Meanwhile, the cereal moguls commissioned studies designed to convince everyone that kids simply will not eat cereal unless it is heavily sweetened. And gosh darn it, as much as they wished that they could help reduce the amount of sugar eaten by kids, there was simply nothing they could do. Their hands were tied. Because in commerce, markets are propelled by demand. So it was implied and presumed that if children were denied sugar-laden breakfast food, millions of them would go on hunger strike and starve themselves to death.

Part 2 discussed the efficacy of creating advertisements where the products were endorsed by celebrities or cartoon characters, or celebrity cartoon characters.

For AlterNet, reporter Martha Rosenberg reviewed a study that had been published in the journal Pediatrics, in which children sampled graham crackers with popular cartoon characters on their packages and found that they tasted better than other crackers (identical down to the molecular level) that came in plain wrappers.

The same type of comparison test was run with identical gummy fruit snacks, some packaged in bland anonymity, and others presented in packaging bedecked with — you guessed it — popular cartoon characters. By now, the astute reader will have also guessed that the cartoon-packaged treats actually tasted better! What is more, the degree of preference was not just noticeable but academically defined as significant.

Part 3 of the sequence looked at the technique of promoting basically valueless junk as being somehow healthful. And strangely, although kids don’t care about that sort of thing, it seems that, nevertheless, they are likely to form a positive impression of a product based on ads that claim health benefits.

About a decade ago, matters had advanced to the point where the average American child encountered around 16,000 TV commercials per year, a large proportion of them touting foodstuffs. At the same time, a growing number of adults were philosophically opposed to the tactic of direct-to-child advertising. Some critics asked, “Should they be allowed to show so many of these ads to kids?” while others were like, “Should they be permitted to do this at all, even a little bit?” It was an uphill battle of course.

Part 4 touched on the cultural weirdness of designating children’s food, as separate and distinct from adults’ food. Sure, in the olden days of the human race, there was breast milk; and no doubt a certain amount of maternal pre-chewing of edible plants and flesh for the benefit of kids who didn’t have teeth yet. But children’s food? No such thing. And yet somehow, thousands of generations of young humans survived.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Americans Are Huge: 5 Surprising Reasons Why We May Be Getting Fatter,”, 03/12/14
Images by Jose Melendez, mliu92, Miguel Pimentel/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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