Common Sense Media

Talking to kids about junk food and fast-food ads

Worried that your kids' eating habits are influenced by cutesy cartoons and jammin' jingles? Teach them to be ad-savvy with these tips.

Kids are bombarded by advertising for junk food and fast food everywhere they turn. In fact, during Saturday-morning cartoons, children see an average of one food commercial every five minutes, mostly for snacks high in fat, sugar, and calories.

Teens with cell phones are even more exposed. When they buy chips or candy, they see offers on the wrappers for free music downloads, ring tones, and whimsical wallpaper for their phones. They're usually routed to a website, where they're hit with even more junk food advertising. And the messages kids get on their phones? Ads, contests, e-cards, fun phrases to forward to friends, and invitations to return to the site for more so-called freebies.

To help your kids understand the marketing manipulation behind such advertising, try asking these questions:

"Why do you think the advertiser put a commercial on this particular program?" This gets to the heart of an important media literacy concept: All messages are targeted to a particular audience.

"Why do you think advertisers use slogans or catchy music?" You may even ask your kids to recall other songs or slogans they remember from ads. Many of us adults can still remember jingles from 10 or 20 years ago.

"What is appealing in this commercial — the way the food looks or the happy family eating it?" Explain that commercials rely on techniques to make products seem more attractive, like using Vaseline to make hamburgers look juicy or putting hair tonic in cereal bowls to prevent the cereal from getting soggy. Also discuss the true purpose of promotional downloads and links on websites and cell phones. Kids need to know that no matter how clever the gimmick or game, it's still advertising.

"What might the advertiser be leaving out of the commercial and why?" Most food ads are not designed to tell us the nutritional values of sugary or salty snacks. Encourage your kids to look elsewhere for the missing information.

"Does it matter that a celebrity was in that commercial?" Teach your children about the persuasive techniques advertisers use, such as testimonials from actors and athletes — or everyday people. This will help your kids understand how they're being influenced.

Here's another idea: Try muting the sound during commercials and asking your kids to provide their own dialogue. Or ask them "What are they saying?" or "What music is playing?" You can also encourage your kids to find subtle sponsorships and product placement in their favorite games and websites. This is a fun way to help them become more aware of marketing techniques.

For more information, visit Common Sense Media's consumerism page.

This tip sheet was adapted from articles by Frank Baker and Amy Jussel for Common Sense Media. Baker is a media education consultant the creator of Media Literacy Clearinghouse. Jussel is the executive director of Shaping Youth, a consortium of media and marketing professionals concerned about harmful messages to children.

Common Sense Media is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping parents make informed media and entertainment choices for their families.