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Feature Articles: Food, Fitness and Children


Parents can take back
control from marketing
aimed at their children

Alma Hopkins, M.Ed., R.D., L.D.

Associate State Specialist Nutritional Sciences
University of Missouri Extension

Take this simple test. Ask a young child to identify a picture of George Washington, 1st President of the United States, and the other of Ronald McDonald, icon of the fast-food restaurant chain. Most likely, George Washington will be unrecognized by our children. This informal survey was shown in the film documentary Super Size Me, The film explored the role the fast food restaurant has in influencing the way we eat. In turn, the survey was a powerful illustration of the influence that media marketing plays on our children’s young minds.


It is estimated that the typical child sees about 40,000 ads a year on TV and that the majority of the ads targeted to kids are for candy, cereal, soda and fast food as reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The report concludes that the majority of children, who spend the most time with the media, particularly watching television, are more likely to be overweight. The exposure to the food commercials influence children’s food preferences that are in themselves inconsistent to the national dietary recommendations.


The food industry understands and puts into work the marketing concept of “imprinting” or “brand-loyalty” that begins at a very early age. “Food marketers are interested in youth as consumers because of their spending power, their purchasing influence, and as future adult consumers” as stated by researchers Mary Story and Simone French, from the University of Minnesota Minneapolis.


Media takes many forms aside from TV, newspaper, magazines, the internet, and radio. Advertising and marketing directly in public schools has grown in the last 10 years. Schools offer a “captured” audience able to reach large numbers of children and adolescents in a contained setting, and schools are financially vulnerable due to chronic funding shortages.


Marketing to our children in schools exists by the following examples:


  • exclusive soft drink contracts where only one soda vendor is agreed to be sold in schools;
  • book and file folder covers with brand names and logos;
  • short-term sales of candy, pizza, or cookie dough;
  • displays, billboards and signs in school halls, gymnasiums and gymnasium score boards, or on school buses advertising a particular soda, candy or snack;
  • classroom rewards and fundraisers such as Pizza Hut’s Book-It Program and McDonald’s McTeacher Nights.


Parents can begin to take back control by establishing new rules in their own homes. Here are some ideas:

  • Sit less. Sitting and watching TV burns less calories - - not only less than when playing, but even less than reading or “doing nothing”. In fact, watching TV burns as much calories as when at sleep. A reasonable goal is no more than 2 hours a day. Another idea is to take the TV out of your child’s bedroom.
  • Encourage imaginative play. Depending on the age of the child, playing with leggos, sidewalk chalk, reading a book, playing a game or with puzzles are just a few of many things to do. Boredom can lead to ideas of filling free time with the right parental encouragement.
  • Move more. Lead the way and be active together. Make physical activity a part of each day. Walk with your child to school, enjoy family walks in the evening or play at the park. Find out if your school or church has “open gym” and take the family.
  • Give positive rewards. Reward yourself and your child for a job well done. Think “healthy” when selecting rewards. Staying up an extra hour, a trip to the library, going fishing, or enrolling in summer camp are a few of many ideas.

Setting limits on TV and watching responsibly will help protect your child and teen from many influences that are not in the best interest for them and overall your family. It is worth the time to have these discussions with your children.





Last update: Tuesday, May 05, 2009








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