Advertisers View Teens as Marketing Opportunities

Advertisers View Teens as Marketing Opportunities

Table of Contents: Further Readings

Mary Story and Simone French, International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, London, BioMed Central, 2004. Copyright © 2004 Story and French, licensee BioMed Central Ltd. Reproduced by permission. http://www/

Mary Story, PhD, RD, and Simone French, PhD are faculty in the Division of Epidemiology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Professor Story is director of the Robert Wood Foundation Healthy Eating Research Program, National Program Office, and co-director of the Obesity Prevention Center. Professor French is co-director of the Obesity Prevention Center and member of the University of Minnesota Cancer Center.

Young people in America are bombarded with advertising every day. Marketers reach them through commercials on television and also through ads in magazines, on billboards, on the Internet and even in the bathroom stalls at school. Much advertising has a negative effect on adolescents, encouraging them to adopt unhealthy behaviors. Advertising for food and restaurants impacts children and teens, causing them to choose high-calorie, non-nutritious foods over healthy ones.

Numerous studies have documented that young children have little understanding of the persuasive intent of advertising. Prior to age 7 or 8 years, children tend to view advertising as fun, entertaining, and unbiased information. An understanding of advertising intent usually develops by the time most children are 7-8 years old. Because of their level of cognitive development, children under 8 years of age are viewed by many child development researchers as a population vulnerable to misleading advertising. The heavy marketing of high fat, high sugar foods to this age group can be viewed as exploitative because young children do not understand that commercials are designed to sell products and they do not yet possess the cognitive ability to comprehend or evaluate the advertising. Preteens, from ages 8-10 years, possess the cognitive ability to process advertisements but do not necessarily do so. From early adolescence (11-12 years), children’s thinking becomes more multidimensional, involving abstract as well as concrete thought. Adolescents still can be persuaded by the emotive messages of advertising, which play into their developmental concerns related to appearance, self-identity, belonging, and sexuality.

Food Advertising and Marketing Channels

Multiple channels are used to reach youth to foster brand-building and influence food product purchase behavior. Youth-oriented marketing channels and techniques include television advertising, in-school marketing, product placements, kids clubs, the Internet, toys and products with brand logos, and youth-targeted promotions, such as cross-selling and tie-ins. The channels used to market food and beverages to youth are described below.

By the time they graduate from high school [children in the United States] may have been exposed to 360,000 television ads.

Television Advertising

It is estimated that US children may view between 20,000-40,000 commercials each year and by the time they graduate from high school may have been exposed to 360,000 television ads. Food is the most frequently advertised product category on US children’s television and food ads account for over 50% of all ads targeting children. Children view an average of one food commercial every five minutes of television viewing time, and may see as many as three hours of food commercials each week. In a descriptive study that examined US food advertising during 52.5 hours of Saturday morning children’s programming, 564 food advertisements (57% of all ads) were shown. On average, 11 of 19 commercials per hour were for food. Of these ads, 246 (44%) promoted food from the fats and sweets group, such as candy, soft drinks, chips, cakes, cookies and pastries. Fast-food restaurant advertising was also prevalent, comprising 11% of total food advertisements. The most frequently advertised food product was high sugar breakfast cereal. There were no advertisements for fruits or vegetables. Several other studies have documented that the foods promoted on US children’s television are predominantly high in sugar and fat, with almost no references to fruits or vegetables. The food advertised on US children’s television programming is inconsistent with healthy eating recommendations for children.

In-school Marketing

During the past decade in the US, use of public schools as advertising and marketing venues has grown. Reasons for the increase in in-school marketing to children and adolescents include the desire to increase sales and generate product loyalty, the ability to reach large numbers of children and adolescents in a contained setting, and the financial vulnerability of schools due to chronic funding shortages. In-school commercial activities related to food and beverages include 1) product sales; 2) direct advertising; 3) indirect advertising; and 4) market research with students.

In a recent report by the US General Accounting Office (GAO), food sales were reported to be the most prevalent form of commercial activity in schools. Food sales involved primarily the sale of soft drinks from vending machines and short-term fundraising sales. The US national School Health Policies and Programs Study 2000 (SHPPS) found that students could purchase soft drinks, sports drinks, or fruit drinks that are not 100% juice in a vending machine, school store, or snack bar in 58% of elementary schools, 83% of middle schools, and 94% of high schools. In a recent survey of 336 secondary school principals in Minnesota, US, 98% of the school principals reported that soft drink vending machines were available to students, and 77% of the schools had a contract with a soft drink company. The GAO report found that the sale of soft drinks by schools or districts under exclusive contracts is the fastest growing activity of all product sales. Nationally in the US, more than one-third of elementary schools, half of middle/junior high schools, and almost three-fourths of senior high schools have a contract that gives a company rights to sell soft drinks at schools. Most (92%) of these schools receive a specified percentage of the soft drink sales revenues and about 40% receive incentives such as cash awards or donated equipment once revenues total a specified amount. The contract terms vary greatly, but many are highly lucrative.

There is also a growing trend of fast food vendors in schools. About 20% of US high schools offer brand-name fast foods, such as Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, or Subway. The results from the 2000 California High School Fast Food Survey conducted in 171 US school districts with 345 public high schools found that 24% of districts with a fast food or beverage contract gave exclusive advertising promotion rights to that company, including placement of the company’s name and logo on school equipment and facilities. Only 13% of the districts did not allow advertising on campus.

There are many types of direct advertising in schools, such as soft drink, fast food, or snack food corporate logos on athletic scoreboards, sponsorship banners in gyms, ads in school newspapers and yearbooks, free textbook covers with ads, and screen-saver ads on school computers for branded foods and beverages. The US GAO report found that the most visible and prevalent types of direct advertising in schools were soft drink advertisements and corporate names and logos on scoreboards. Recently, food marketing to youth in schools has become even more intense, persuasive, and creative. Some schools are now selling food advertising space on their athletes’ warm-up suits, as well as inside and outside of school buses.

Food advertisements can also be delivered through in-school media. About 12,000 schools or about 38% of middle and high schools in the US are connected to Channel One, the 12-minute current events program that carries two minutes of commercials including advertisements for soft drinks and high fat snack foods. Schools receive free video equipment in exchange for mandatory showing of the program in classrooms. Brand and Greenberg evaluated the effects of Channel One in-school advertising on high school students’ purchasing attitudes, intentions, and behaviors. About 70% of the 45 food commercials shown on Channel One during one month were for food products including fast foods, soft dunks, chips and candy. In schools where Channel One was viewed, students had more positive attitudes about the advertised products, and were more likely to report intentions to purchase these products compared to students who did not have Channel One in their classrooms. However, students who watched Channel One did not report more frequent purchases of the advertised products compared with students in schools that did not show Channel One.

In the last 10 years, US marketing companies have developed strategies that focus exclusively on schools. For example, a US marketing company, Cover Concepts, distributes textbook covers, lesson plans, posters, bookmarks, sampling programs, specialty packs, and lunch menu posters to participating companies. These products are branded with the company’s name or corporate logo and then distributed free to students and schools. Cover Concepts’ promotional materials state: “Cover Concepts places your brand directly into the hands of kids and teens in a clutter-free environment. We work in tandem with school administrators to distribute free, advertiser-sponsored materials to over 30 million student—grades K-12—in 43,000 authorized schools nationwide, plus additional reach in daycare centers throughout the country.”

Indirect advertising includes corporate-sponsored educational materials and corporate-sponsored incentives and contests.

Product Placements

Product placement is increasing in popularity and becoming more acceptable as a standard marketing channel. It typically involves incorporating brands in movies in return for money or promotional support. Fees are variable depending on the relative prominence of the placement in movies, and are usually around $50,000 to $100,000. The product placement may be placed as a backdrop “prop” or may be an integral part of the script. Producers contend that product placement makes sets look more realistic and that brands help define characters and settings. In addition, product placement can help offset production costs. Product placement in the movies first gained attention in 1982 when it was reported that sales of the peanut butter candy Hershey’s Reese’s Pieces increased by 65% within a month due to its placement within E.T., The Extra Terrestrial. It is reported that placement is being used more in radio, music videos, books, comic strips, plays, and songs and that product placement agencies are increasing in number.

Kids’ Club

Several corporations have developed branded kids clubs as a way to communicate with and maintain an ongoing relationship with children. The name is a misnomer in that many kids clubs aren’t really clubs, but standard marketing programs with names that imply they are clubs. Kids clubs permit mass marketing on a personalized basis and club members may receive direct mailing such as membership cards, birthday cards, holiday greetings, and newsletters. In addition they can participate in contests, receive coupons and branded items such as posters, screensavers, and discounts for items with the club’s logo. Some examples of kids clubs from corporations include Burger King, Nickelodeon, Fox, Sega, and Disney. The Burger King Kids Club has more than 5 million members.


Online media play an increasingly significant role in the lives of US children and teenagers. US Census data indicate that between 1998 and 2001 the proportion of US adolescents (ages 14-17 years) using the Internet increased from 51% to 75% and the proportion of US children (ages 10-13 years) online increased from 39% to 65%. Families with children represent one of the fastest growing segments of the population using the Internet. US Census data from 2001 indicate that half (51%) of US children 10-13 years old and 61% of those 14-17 years old have Internet access at home.

Advertisers and marketers have begun to target the rapidly growing number of U.S. children online with a variety of new interactive advertising and marketing techniques.

Advertisers and marketers have begun to target the rapidly growing number of US children online with a variety of new interactive advertising and marketing techniques. The forms of advertising and marketing on the Web differ significantly from television commercials. Utilizing the unique features of the Internet, companies can seamlessly integrate advertising and Web site content. Almost all of the major companies that advertise and market to children have created their own websites, designed as “branded environments” for children. This electronic advertising “environment” and on-line infomercials is evident with food companies, which offer multiple entertaining, animated and interactive areas developed specifically for preschoolers and children around their food products. These sites include games, word-find puzzles, contests, quizzes, riddles, music, e-mail cards, clips of commercials, sweepstakes, downloadable recipes, desktop wallpaper and screensavers that feature their products, and on-line stores that sell licensed merchandise. Children can also sign up to receive electronic newsletters with news about products and promotions. The sites often feature popular product spokes-characters and animated cartoon characters, such as Tony the Tiger, Chester Cheetah, Toucan Sam, and Snap! Crackle! And Pop! The integration of products into games is commonplace. The company’s website is frequently featured on ads or product packaging.

Youth-targeted Promotions

Promotions are a commonly used marketing method for reaching children and adolescents and include cross-selling, tie-ins, premiums, and sweepstakes prizes. Cross-selling and tie-ins combine promotional efforts to sell a product. In the US, the food industry has forged promotional links with Hollywood and Network studios, toy companies, and sports leagues. Burger King has formed a linkage with Nickelodeon, and McDonald’s with the Fox Kids Network. Burger King has sold chicken nuggets shaped like Teletubbies. Disney has launched cross-selling campaigns and tie-ins worth millions of dollars to promote its films and characters. In 1996, Disney signed a ten-year global marketing agreement with McDonald’s. In 2001, Coca-Cola and Disney partnered to build Disney character-branded children’s beverages. Kellogg’s also has an agreement with Disney to extend the Disney characters to cereals, Keebler cookies and Eggo waffles. McDonald’s has formed partnerships with the National Basketball Association. Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Wendy’s have linked with the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Premiums and sweepstakes prizes have increased recently and are often used to appeal to children’s and adolescent’s tastes and desires. Premiums provide something free with a purchase, whereas sweepstakes and contests promise opportunities to win free products. Fast food restaurants typically use premiums in children’s meals, giving away simple toys. Sweetened cereals also commonly give premiums in the form of toys, cards or games. Premiums can increase short-term sales since children may desire the item over the food, but they also can help elevate the image of that brand in children’s minds. In one study in which preschool and school-age children and parents were unobtrusively observed while grocery shopping, almost half of the children who made cereal purchase requests were influenced by premium offers.



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