Selling Crap to Kids, Part 9

A 2016 study revealed that children “as young as 2 years old could recognize food and beverage characters…” and for several years they are deeply impressionable. Children under the age of eight were found to be extremely susceptible to outside influence, like advertising, for instance, because “the brain is most open to priming.”

Attributed to various sources is a centuries-old maxim. One authority says,

Educationalists should take the hint from the dictum of Ignatius Loyola… “Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man.”

Throughout the decade, the battle for children’s minds and hearts raged on. While some manufacturers made the effort to appear nobly concerned, others just went with the flow, and got away with whatever chicanery they could. But while a cartoon character might captivate a child, more is required to snag the attention of teenagers.

Celebrities had already been taking some flak for endorsing junk food. A study revealed what anyone with half a wit realized anyway: “Most of the foods and beverages endorsed by celebrities are unhealthy.”

The industry was so enamored of capturing young minds that it spent $2 billion per year on the art and science of doing that. Not surprisingly, the most fervent employers of media stars were PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Red Bull. Also generating minimal shock, this news was announced:

Very few celebrities were endorsing healthy products, and not one popular TV, film, or music star was featured in ads for fruits, vegetables, or whole grain products.

But never fear… there is always a place for the beautifully famous, in the world of junk food marketing. Just like there is always a place for little kids in the media marketing landscape. The junk food advertising industry discovered the pester-power factor, utilizing both electronic screens and in-store displays to inform children exactly what they ought to desire, and motivating behavior that parents don’t love, and neither does the general public.

Back in the day

Most media did not used to be on-demand. There were three TV networks, and you watched what they broadcast, on their schedule. Certain types of programming clustered around certain time slots, and Saturday morning was cartoon heaven.

In 2016, Gwendolyn Wu wrote on

[T]wo separate studies published last week suggest that the constant barrage of junk food advertisements on television is a driving factor behind rising childhood obesity levels…

For one study […] researchers from McMaster University in Canada conducted randomized trials and found that children who saw commercials for junk foods consumed more unhealthy foods than healthy ones…

Those findings are supported by a study [that] analyzed kids’ responses to junk food commercials on TV and found that children commonly ask their parents to purchase items that they see on screen.

The public talked about setting boundaries, and if necessary, laying down some laws. Marketing should be a grown-up conversation, with the kids left out of it. Some very worried adults pointed out that advertising to children is a sort of gradual brainwashing to get what the adult wants, a process that in another context is called grooming.

Meanwhile, young cartoon aficionados were absorbing an average of five junk-food commercials per hour. The children under scrutiny reported that, among other things, the ads made them think of nutritionally null snacks, when they would not ordinarily have done so.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Silly rabbit! Junk food ads contribute to childhood obesity, study says,”, 07/05/16
Source: “Give me a child…,”, 12/19/06
Source: “Study: 80% of Celebrity Endorsements Are for Junk Foods,”, 07/05/16
Source: “Kids Admit Commercials Make Them Pester Parents for Junk Food,”, 07/11/16
Image by Leonid Mamchenkov/CC BY 2.0 DEED

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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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