Here is the full transcript of author and educator Anna Lappé’s TEDx Talk: Marketing Food to Children at TEDxManhattan 2013 Conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Marketing food to children | Anna Lappe | TEDxManhattan
I want to ask you all to do me a favor if you don’t mind. Before I begin, I’d like us all to call into our minds a child or children who we love. It can be a daughter, a son, it can be a godchild, it can be a niece or a nephew, a brother or a sister. Just picture in your mind’s eye who that kid is, and I will be picturing this one. Yeah, I think she’s kind of cute. That’s my daughter Ida, that was on her second birthday. One of her friends gave her that tiara that she insisted on wearing for the whole rest of the party. So I’ll be thinking of Ida.
When Ida was 2, right around this age, she fell in love: deeply, madly in love. Her name was Dora. And Dora was pretty cool. She was adventurous, she even spoke Spanish, she was pretty cool. She also sold band-aids, and if you’re a parent out there, you might have had some experience with the Dora band-aid. If you have, you would know what I mean when I say my child became obsessed with these band-aids. It was the kind of obsession that got her faking injuries just so she could wear them. And I got completely sucked into supporting her habit. I’d like to tell you that that desperate woman hunting down the Dora band-aids late at night at Rite-aid wasn’t me. It was.
Of course, cute, charismatic cartoons like Dora aren’t just selling band-aids. The food industry has figured out how to use cartoon characters to get kids hooked on their products too. You may have seen Spongebob on pop-tarts or Shrek on Twinkies, like this one here. And it does say somewhere on there, “Ogre-green creamy filling, same great taste.” You may have seen some of these packages, you may have seen Dora on cupcakes, crackers, popsicles, ice cream.
And it’s not just cute cartoon characters the food industry uses to get kids hooked on their products. There’s lots of other things they’re doing. In fact, the food industry itself says they spend about $2 billion every year — $2 billion every year — in marketing directly to children and teenagers. And of course, the industry is spending many billions more than that in marketing that kids are seeing anyway.
The way that the food industry is now targeting young people, I have found, as I’ve kind of dug into what they’re doing, I found to be quite alarming when you think about it in the context of the fact that diet-related illnesses among young people are on the rise. We all know that. When we think about this omnipresent marketing, I think it isn’t an exaggeration to say that it has become downright dangerous.
So the food industry knows that marketing to kids works. What does it do for them? It builds brand loyalty which can sometimes last a lifetime. So you target young people, you get them hooked on your brands early, that’s a lifetime of brand loyalty. It also generates what the industry calls pester power. Some of you out there, you might be parents, you might be familiar with what pester power is. It doesn’t feel too good, but it works. 75% of parents say they have bought a product for the first time because their child asked them for it. Or to speak in industry terms, their child pestered them for it.
The more I learned about the ways that children and teens are being bombarded with food marketing, the more outraged I have become. And you might be too as you learn what I’m about to share with you today.
If a child watches a typical amount of television every year, they will now be seeing 4,600 ads for food and drink. Most of those ads will be for foods and drinks that are high in fat, sugar, and salt. So 4,600 ads every single year. And what we know about seeing those ads is we know it gets kids to prefer certain brands. We also know it gets all of us to just eat more, period.
So you might think, “Well, OK, so the answer’s simple. They’re being bombarded on television, so just turn off the TV. Just don’t expose kids to TV.” Well it’s not that simple. You see, junk food marketing to children and teens has now become nearly impossible to avoid. Because so much of it is happening outside of a parent’s control and beyond our reach.
So there are now — I was particularly shocked when I discovered this — there are now classroom curricula sponsored by Oreo cookies. This is the Oreo cookie counting book. There are also the M&M counting book, the ‘Spark Creativity with Fruit Loops’ activity book for preschoolers, and the list goes on and on and on and on.
You can now find corporate logos in school gymnasiums, in community centers, in school hallways, in yearbooks. They’re even trying to get on school buses. There’s also this kind of new wave of marketing where you have junk food companies and fast food companies trying to partner with trusted public institutions to help build that brand loyalty.
So a few years back there was a partnership between McDonald’s and Big Macs, and UNICEF. And I just don’t really think Big Mac and UNICEF should really be in the same sentence. So you’re having that kind of marketing, and you’re also starting to see some marketing posed as charity. So you have initiatives like Pepsi Refresh or My Coke Rewards, which is billed by Coca-Cola as a great fund-raising tool for schools. Some of you may have heard of My Coke Rewards. The concept is you buy Coke products, you get reward points, and then you can redeem them for a whole range of different prizes, including those you can get for your school.
So we looked into it a little bit, and we found that to get this physical activity pack — there’s some whistles in there, some jump ropes, some balls — do you know how many cans of Coke you would need to buy to get enough reward points for your school to earn this? 55,000 cans of Coca-Cola. 55,000 cans of Coca-Cola. It doesn’t really seem like such a deal to me.
So what I have found actually particularly upsetting about how the food industry is marketing to children and teens is that when you dig into the research about it, what you find is that young people of color are bearing the brunt of this marketing. African-American teens, for instance, are barraged with 80% more ads for sugary drinks than white teenagers. And this is especially upsetting because African-American children and teenagers are already among the hardest hit from diet-related illnesses, and that inequality is made even worse by race-based target marketing.
So what does the food industry say about all this? They’re saying, “Well, we’re marketing to kids less, we’re doing it less.” But the truth is they’re just changing where and how they’re doing it. So they’re no dummies, they know where young people are these days. Probably all of us know where young people are these days. Online. Right? 73% of teenagers are now on some social media site. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter: the food industry is on all of these platforms. And what are they doing on them? They’re pushing promotions, and prizes, and contests, and coupons, all to get kids coming back often and sharing with their friends.
There are now dozens of websites out there designed for kids by food companies with free games, and contests. There are sites like Ronald.com, which is McDonald’s site just for preschoolers. On these sites what you find again and again and again is that you have to enter — to play these games, and to get all these freebies and prizes — you have to enter your personal information: your birthday, your cell phone number, personal information that is then used to sell to you more.
So if you’re a teenager today and you’re walking by a McDonald’s, you might just get a text message promotion for a Big Mac because they have your cell phone number and your GPS information. I was telling a friend about this, I was telling a friend who works for the New York City Department of Public Health. I was telling her about just this level of data that is now being collected on young people and that’s being used to figure out how to market to kids. And she said, “Anna, can you imagine if we had those resources to do that kind of specific marketing? Can you imagine how incredible our marketing campaigns could be for healthy food? We could send text promotions for farmers markets.” But the Public Health Department doesn’t have that level of resources or that level of data. The food industry does.
And what I find so disturbing about the power that the junk food industry now holds to reach our kids, to reach young people today, is that what children and teenagers are enticed to consume has life and death consequences. And when I say life and death, I am not exaggerating. Life and death consequences. In the past 30 years, the prevalence of obesity among children and teens has tripled. Today, a child born in this country has a 1-in-3 chance of developing diabetes at some point in their lifetime. For African-American and Latino kids, that is a 1-in-2 chance. 1-in-2. And it’s not just diabetes, it’s also heart disease and high blood pressure, asthma, even certain cancers.
It’s diet-related illnesses that are having many doctors see conditions in their practice that they have never seen before. Like the pediatrician I met in Maine who was telling me that young people in their 20’s are coming in to get dentures because they have been drinking soda for their entire lives. In their 20’s.
It has people like the pediatrician I met from Chicago who was telling me that he now has to fit young people with leg braces because their growing bones and joints can no longer support their weight. It’s tragic, and it’s so tragic because this is all totally preventable. It doesn’t have to be this way. And you don’t have to be a parent to have your heart break hearing these stories, right? We all have children in our lives who we love, and we’re all paying the price for this crisis in mounting healthcare costs.
But I am not just here to tell you how bad things are. I’m not just here to tell you how upset as a parent I am. I’m also here to talk about what we can do about it. Here is where there is some incredible good news because all over the country there are people putting pressure on policy makers and on companies to protect kids from these dangerous marketing tactics.
I’m here to tell you about the state of Maine that was the first to pass a statewide ban on marketing junk food in schools. I’m here to tell you about the people of Los Angeles who finally said enough and put a moratorium on opening new fast food franchises in certain neighborhoods.
I’m here to tell you about the campaign for commercial-free childhood, which stopped McDonald’s from advertising on report card envelopes that would have promised elementary school students free happy meals for good school performance.
I’m here to tell you that all over the country people are passing policies and winning lawsuits, changing school norms; all to protect our kids and promote healthy eating. And the good news is this works. We know that when you teach kids about why food matters and give them access to it, that they go for it. I’m seeing proof of that everywhere I go. Like the teenager I met who before working on this urban farm program, that the only vegetable she’d ever eaten were those that came between two hamburger buns, and told me that now, thanks to working on this farm, she’d become a salad fanatic. So we can raise healthy kids who love food that’s good for their bodies. We can, but not in this food environment.
So what we’re talking about doing is huge. We’re talking about changing social norms. But we’ve done it before, and we can do it again, and we can do it by standing up stronger, standing up taller, speaking up louder, joining with campaigns that are happening across the country like those from Corporate Accountability International with their campaign to suggest it might be time for Ronald to retire down to Florida. The Campaign for Commercial-free Childhood which has successfully stopped logos going on school buses everywhere they have tried to do that. Groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest and my group, the Food Mythbusters.
Food companies say it’s up to parents to raise healthy kids. That’s what they say. And I agree. Absolutely. That’s why I say to those corporations, “Then leave parenting to us.” Right? Don’t tell children what’s good to put into their bodies. I have two daughters now. That’s Ida and her baby sister Rosa. And to the junk food industry I say this: my children — all of our children — are none of your business.