In a grocery store recently, a friend’s young child gave a big hug to a brightly colored, meter-high plastic cartoon mascot for a well-known candy brand standing at the end of an aisle surrounded by many bags of the candy on sale.
“Aww, that’s so cute!” was the mother’s first reaction.
Then it dawned on her – it wasn’t cute at all.
It was, she realized, very effective and invasive marketing. Not only did the youngster know and recognize the candy mascot, but she felt it was “someone” she should hug and that her mother should buy her some of that candy.
This was marketing of unhealthy foods to kids at its most basic, and it needs to stop.
The candy mascot set-up is an example of what are known as “island displays” in stores. Product manufacturers develop these free-standing displays – the more eye-catching the better – and will pay stores to use them so their product gets more attention and more of their product is sold.
Island displays are often used effectively to sell products on sale that week, or for seasonal items, such as poinsettias at Christmas. The problem arises when they are used with compelling kid-appealing elements to promote unhealthy foods and sugary drinks – as they are far too often.
I recently released a report, funded by Heart & Stroke, about marketing food and beverages to kids, including tactics like island displays. The report summarizes data my research group collected from grocery stores, corner stores, and restaurants across 11 regions in Canada. The results show how pervasive island displays and other forms of marketing to kids really are.
On average, our research showed there were about 15 island displays per store, of which nine (almost 60 percent) were child-directed. Of the island displays, 40 percent used child themes or visual designs, and 13 percent had branded characters like the one my friend encountered.
Among retailers that had island displays, more than 90 percent used them to sell unhealthy foods.
We found that marketing to kids is ubiquitous in grocery stores, corner stores, and restaurants across Canada. In addition to island displays, marketers use myriad tactics like branded characters and child themes and designs on signage, posters, and ice cream freezers to directly appeal to children.
This is a big problem because in-store marketing to kids works. Junk food marketing leads to increased consumption of unhealthy foods and sugary drinks that contributes to our current dietary crisis, condemning young people to a future of health challenges.
It rubs off on parents too. Children influence the purchase of many foods for the whole family, often by “pestering” parents to buy the appealing but unhealthy products they have seen advertised, not just in stores but on TV and online.
Marketing of unhealthy food and sugary drinks needs to be reined in as part of the federal government’s planned new regulations restricting the marketing of such products to children under 13 years old. The enactment of these restrictions is long overdue, but if marketing in grocery stores, convenience stores, and restaurants is not included in the regulations, they will lose a large part of their effectiveness.
If this loophole is left open, it will be exploited by the industry, leading to even greater amounts of point-of-sale marketing to kids. We witnessed this when restrictions on tobacco advertising began – advertisers shifted their strategies to invest where they were still permitted. There’s every reason to believe that the same will happen for unhealthy foods and sugary drinks.
Marketing always evolves in response to policies that aim to curtail it by increasing efforts where it is not restricted.
We urgently need the federal government to follow through on its commitment to introduce strong new regulations to restrict marketing to children – and the regulations must include point-of-sale marketing that might look cute but ultimately hurts our kids.
Leia Minaker is a public health sciences professor in Canada.