Junk food marketing and childhood obesity



Kraak et al. define junk food as cheap food which contains high amounts of calories from sugar or fat and has little fiber, protein, vitamins or minerals (23). Junk food can also be found in food that contains high protein such as meat prepared with saturated fat. Most of these junk foods are found in hamburger outlets, fried chicken outlets and other places where food is sold. Junk food does not pose any immediate health issues especially when integrated into a well balanced diet. However, research into the consumption of junk food has shown that it has negative health implications. Childhood obesity has been linked to junk food consumption and it has resulted in a public health awareness campaign (Cheyne 123). This essay will illustrate why junk food marketers target the youth, commonly used marketing forms to target the youth, common marketing strategies to target the youth, impact of junk food marketing on youth and improving policies to protect youth from junk food marketing.

Why junk food marketers target the youth

Advertisements of junk food products are seen everywhere in the open market and the youth are their main target. Since television, mobile devices and social media are popular with young people, junk food marketers use it as a medium to reach these young people. The current trend of junk food marketing has seen more fast food advertisements appearing on social media such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other websites for young people.  Edwards estimates that Facebook is the biggest advertising expenditure in 2013 and it includes several major global food and beverage companies such as Nestle, CocaCola, and Starbucks (11). According to Edwards, as a way of developing the interest of the youth in the consumption of junk food, fast food mobile applications like “advergame” have been developed and it features the company’s products and brands (11).

A survey has found out that in 2009, the fast food industry has increased their spending on advertisement up to 8% representing 4.6 billion a year on junk food and the youth saw an average of 4.8 fast food adverts daily (Lassiter & Grier 350). This figure shows that there has been an increase of 6% in the year 2012. The reason for targeting the youth is that young people are easy to convince to buy, that is why junk food marketers target them. In Lassiter & Grier view the youth has little knowledge to comprehend the persuasive intentions of advertisement therefore they tend to watch these advertising as fun, unbiased information and entertaining (347). Looking at their level of mental development, the junk food sellers see them as people who are vulnerable or misleading hence they present the junk food as part of a healthy diet. Therefore the youth are pressured with adverts on television and other social media for the marketing of junk food like those that contain high fat, high sugar and beverage products on a regular basis.

Commonly used marketing forms targeting youth

The marketing channels and techniques include the use of traditional media and new media.  The traditional media is an old media which has been used in marketing for years. This form of marketing is a constant way that most businesses use to reach consumers and it has been in existence for decades. The traditional media forms the basis for marketing and it is the most common form of advertisement that is utilized by most businesses on a daily basis. Traditional media includes television, radio, newspapers and magazine adverts. In traditional marketing, the use of television remains the primary technique for advertisement to the youth. In 2009, Powell, Harris, et al. mentioned that one-third of all food industries marketing expenses was on television advert (2). A comparison of television adverts seen by children between 2-11 and teens shows that on the average, children between 2-11 watch 13 television advertisements per day while teens watch an average of 16 television adverts per day. Powell, Harris, et al. further noted that, “the youth on the average are exposed to more than 900 calories per day from television adverts” (9). Marketers use of television adverts adopt different persuasive techniques such as health and nutrition claims, an appeal to taste and other premium offers in order to entice the youth to purchase the food product.

Another marketing form that targets the youth is the use of new media. The new media or digital media in marketing involves the use of online or internet for the purpose of advertising. Some of these online media marketing include social media, content marketing, email marketing and others. Between 2006 and 2009, it was reported that the use of digital marketing by food industries saw an increase of more than 50% in advertising. According to Ramirez, Gallion and Adeigbe, the Federal Trade Commission reported that the use of mobile marketing is an important avenue for the food industries to target the youth (370). The report showed that 37% of the youth own smartphones of which 95% of them are online. The vast use of smartphones by the youth makes them vulnerable to digital marketing by the food industries. Facebook has become one of the marketing channels through which the food industries market their junk food product. Coca-Cola for instance has over 30 million Facebook fans and these fans are more likely to buy and drink the product than those who are not declared fans. The use of branded games like “advergame” has made digital marketing successful to the food industries. Harris et al. “Advergames promoting unhealthy foods embed branded games into playful environments that build positive brand associations for youth without appearing to be advertising” (53).

Common marketing strategies targeting youth

Several marketing strategies are used by the food industry to promote their food product and collaborate with their customers, in this case the youth. They also use it to create awareness of the benefits, features and specifications of the product so that the target group will be motivated to buy the specific product. Two of these marketing strategies which are mostly used to target the youth are cost leadership and focus strategy. In the view of Kunkel, Mastro, Ortiz and McKinley, the cost leadership is employed by the industries to create a low cost of operation within their specialized area (1088). In doing this the industry reduces the operation cost so that they can target the youth. Reducing the operation cost means that the industry develops a way to cut costs in the business so that they can offer goods at a lower price. Since most of the consumers would want to buy food at a lower price, the food industry uses this as an opportunity to gain a lot of customers and become the cost leader within their specialized area. McDonald for instance used a cost leadership strategy to attract a wide range of customers when the industry cut down its price drastically to boost up its market share (Hunter 210).

In another example, Payless has a slogan, ‘why pay more when you can Payless’ to draw customers attention to the fact that there is no sense in paying more money for a product when the same product can be purchased at a cheaper price somewhere else. According to Fleming-Milici, Harris, Sarda and Schwartz, industries use cost leadership because it ensures thy offer very low prices of their products that can easily be affordable by the young people, mostly of whom depend on their parents (729). Another marketing strategy which is aimed at targeting the youth is focus strategy. With this strategy, Fleming-Milici et al. stated that the industry adopts a narrow focus and then concentrates on a few market segments (729). Focus strategy objectively has to do with producing to meet the standard of the group that is being targeted. Industries that use focus strategy marketing are likely to build a strong relationship with the target group in a sense that the industry pays attention to the needs of the target group by producing goods that will address the needs of the target group. In the same line of argument, Fleming-Milici et al. went on to mention that industries use focus strategy because it gives them the opportunity to target specific segments of the young people to whom they present unique marketing that meet their unique needs (727).

Impact of junk food marketing on youth

Junk food marketing leads to the purchase and consumption of junk food by kids. This is evident in the various forms of strategies that the marketers adopt to entice the children into purchasing the junk food (Termini, Roberta & Hostetter 620). Their marketing strategies are full of persuasive techniques in that they present the junk food as a healthy food and most of all at a reduced price in order to draw the attention of young people into buying the junk food. According to Kraak et al., 33.8% of the United States population has been affected by obesity and 19% of children are also affected (252). This report is linked to junk food consumed from fast food restaurants by children. Young people who become vulnerable to the persuasion mechanism cannot help it but crave for the food product.  Naturally, food that we consume should serve as fuel for our body. Food has a direct influence on how a person feels and it is a basis for the overall health of a person. However, when junk food is consumed in excess it may cause the person to develop several complications. Germond, Ramirez and Gallion explained that the reason why junk food is unhealthy for children is because the junk food contains large amounts of carbohydrates, added sugar, unhealthy fats and sodium (1).

When consumed, children can develop conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, heart disease among other complications. Childhood obesity is linked to the consumption of junk food and it is a serious public health problem that increases mortality, morbidity and has a long term economic and social cost (Boyland & Whalen 333). Obesity in children is likely to increase heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, joint problems and diabetes. (Powell, et al. 1). Obesity-related medical costs as of 2008 was estimated at $147 billion. Taking the last quarter century into consideration, the obesity rate in children in the United States has seen a sharp increase. It is estimated that children who are overweight with obesity have increased to 20%. In a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity in children between the ages of 2 – 5 years has more than doubled from 5% to 12% and those between the ages of 6 – 11 years has also increased from 6.5% to 17.0%. (Powell, et al. 1). The report also indicates that obesity among young people who are between the ages of 12 – 19 years has tripled from 5% to 17.6%. According to Powell, Rimkus, et al (2012), childhood obesity put children and the youth at risk of becoming obese when they turn adult with its associated health complications such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other complications.

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Conclusion and recommendations

By making healthier food available to the youth and reducing the adverts and availability of Junk food requires improved policies to protect the youth from junk food marketing. In recent times junk foods are common and being sold in various schools in the United States. An estimation of about 20% of public schools in the United States sells various branded foods from McDonald’s and others. Since the school has the responsibility of protecting students, there should be policies to regulate the marketing of junk food. According to the United State Department of Agriculture, “a proposed rule for school wellness policies restricts the marketing of food that do not meet the standard of Smart Snacks in Schools nutrition (1). This policy is very important in the sense that it will bring protection to the students from the marketing of junk food. Until now, it can be concluded that Childhood obesity has become a problem in the United States with its associated poor health such as joint problems, diabetes and high blood pressure. This alarming rate is associated with the consumption of junk food by most children in the United States. Children who consume junk food are being influenced by junk food marketing strategies. They use various forms of marketing strategies to influence the decision of the children because these children are easy to convince.

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