Marketing to Kids: Collateral Damage in Big Food’s Profit Hunt

The Battle for Breakfast by Will Varner

The battle for breakfast is a hard fought fight. Winning the hearts, minds, and stomachs of consumers is no small feat, so BIG FOOD manufacturers have to pull out all the stops. Unfortunately, kids get caught in the crossfire.

Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes is one of the biggest players in the kid marketing arena. Spending an estimated $20 million in advertising annually this pre-sweetened cereal powerhouse has an arsenal of marketing ammo aimed directly at our children. And who’s leading up the charge? That’s right, none other than Tony the Tiger.

Tony the Tiger and Joe Camel disguise their brand's truth by promoting a unique brand personality and image

Characters are a tried-and-true tool for marketers. They’re very effective at creating a vivid world for a brand to live in and tell stories. This is particularly useful when a brand has very few product benefits to talk about. Think back to the days of cigarette advertising–manufacturers used characters to create emotional benefits that were much more powerful than the brand’s product benefits (to learn so more about these marketing techniques, check out my post Happiness Is…). Two prominent examples were the Marlboro man who defined “rugged masculinity” and Joe Camel who embodied “cool.”

Are the characters targeted at kids any different? Defenders of marketing to kids claim animated characters are simple, harmless fun. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. These characters are not some random creation. Rather, they are a well-calculated assault on children. For any given character, millions of dollars has been spent on the following:

  1. Researching the psyche of kids at each stage of childhood development
  2. Learning effective emotional triggers to create kid engagement, trust and purchase interest
  3. Understanding story frameworks to make sure they are interesting to kids
  4. Testing and re-testing advertising concepts and final commercials to ensure they will drive increased consumption among kids

With the help of advertising agencies, research firms, and brand character specialists like Character LLC, Big Food companies launch advertising smart bombs, disguised as fun-loving characters, straight at kids. Is it a fair fight? I don’t think so, but let’s take a closer look at how it all comes together using Tony the Tiger as an example.

Created in 1952 by Kellogg’s ad agency, Leo Burnett, Tony the Tiger has become an iconic brand mascot. Named one of the Top 10 Advertising Icons of the 20th Century, Tony continues to lure kids into his sugared-cereal fold. Preying on children’s love of animated characters and their aspirational dreams of success in sports, Tony now assumes a coach-like role with Frosted Flakes as his suggested way to “power up” to play. With ads featuring baseball, football, hockey, soccer, and gymnastics, Tony has successfully linked Frosted Flakes to sports and athleticism. It’s almost as if Frosted Flakes is Tony’s secret training tool to become a great athlete.

Leveraging the “Earn Your Stripes” campaign that launched in 2004, Frosted Flakes has continued to build its sports-themed platform filled with promotions, tie-ins, and TV advertising. Yes, all guns are blazing and aimed at your kids. For example, this summer’s tie-in was with baseball and featured the following elements:

Frosted Flakes Little League tie-in

Website images from Frosted Flakes 2011 Summer Promotion with Little League Baseball

  • Interactive baseball-themed website with engaging tips, tools and games
  • Sponsorship of the Little League World Series
  • Co-marketing with ESPN
  • Baseball-themed TV Advertising

Let’s take a look at the TV Ad:

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Steeped in the wholesome backdrop of little league baseball, it’s hard not to get sucked in and start whistling or tapping your foot to the catchy tune. But about midway through, Kellogg’s slips in their sell line, and it stopped me cold. In case you missed it, here it is:  “Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes fuels little leaguers to be their best…” Really? So Kellogg’s is telling kids that Frosted Flakes fuels them to be their best? That sounds like crazy talk to me, but let’s first check out Frosted Flakes nutritional info to see if it can really live up to that claim.  Here are my findings:

(1) Frosted Flakes’ nutrition profile reads more like a dessert than a nutritious breakfast. In fact, one 30g serving of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes with milk has more calories and sugars than a Skinny Cow Ice Cream sandwich, and has over 20mg more sodium than a serving of Classic Lay’s Potato Chips (170mg sodium per 28g serving).

Frosted Flakes Nutrition v Skinny Cow Ice Cream Sandwich

(2) Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes’ serving size is also unrealistically small. As the photo below demonstrates, a 30g serving of Frosted Flakes is tiny (just slightly bigger than the size of a tennis ball). Most kids consume 2-3 servings at one sitting. Can you see serving your child the equivalent of 2 or 3 ice cream sandwiches for breakfast or to “fuel them up” for the big game? Then why would you serve them Frosted Flakes?

One 30g serving of Frosted Flakes

(3) Frosted Flakes is the epitome of processed food with few if any “real food” ingredients.

Ingredient List for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes

Some of the processed “highlights” off Frosted Flakes’ label are:

  • Milled Corn:  Frosted Flakes uses genetically modified corn. The corn kernel’s germ and most of the fiber is removed during the milling process.
  • Sugar & High Fructose Corn Syrup:  Sugars are clearly a key ingredient in Frosted Flakes. The use of two different kinds of sugars is somewhat suspicious. Sometimes manufacturers use different varieties of a similar ingredients to change the order of ingredients. In the case of Frosted Flakes, perhaps Kellogg’s is using both Sugar and HFCS in order to avoid sugar from being the first ingredient listed.
  • BHT:  Butylated hydroxytoluene is a preservative used in processed foods and embalming fluid. Since the 1970s it has been the subject of controversy because: (1) it’s a suspected cause of hyperactivity in children and (2) a potential link to increased risk of cancer.
  • Vitamins & Calcium: A variety of vitamins and calcium are either mixed into or sprayed onto Frosted Flakes in order to give the product the appearance of healthy attributes.  For example, the current burst on the Frosted Flakes box reads “Good Source of Vitamin D”.  Don’t be fooled by this ploy. A balanced diet and a good multivitamin are much better alternatives than sugared cereals.

So does Frosted Flakes live up to its advertising claim “fuels little leaguers to be their best”? No, I don’t think so. At best Kellogg’s can claim Frosted Flakes’ simple carbs will launch kids on a sugar-fueled roller coaster ride.

Unfortunately the story of unhealthy breakfast cereal advertising isn’t a new one. Back in the 1970’s cereals were so full of sugar that Saturday Night Live spoofed their advertising with a skit called “Mini Chocolate Donuts.”

[If you’re having trouble viewing it here, you can look for it on NBC.com ‘s website here.]

Although this makes for great late-night comedy, the sad reality is over thirty years later we have a serious obesity epidemic on our hands. The processed food industry has deflected blame, lobbied effectively, and continues to advertise to unsuspecting children. The American Academy of Pediatrics has spoken out against advertising to kids and has even suggested regulating “advertising and promotion of energy-dense, nutrient-poor food products to children.” But BIG FOOD balks at ANY regulation or voluntary guidelines. In fact, a recent Reuters new piece reports:

“Food giants such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Kraft and advertising companies successfully pressed U.S. regulators to acknowledge they may weaken proposed guidelines that bar junk food advertisements aimed at children and younger teens….

The loss of ads have worried companies such as Coca-Cola Co, which has spent $4.74 million to lobby so far this year, Kraft Food Inc, which has spent $2.09 million; and PepsiCo Inc, which has spent $2.61 million, among others.

Trade groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which spent $2.98 million so far this year, and the National Restaurant Association, which spent $2.1 million, say ditching the guidelines is important to their members.”

In an attempt to raise awareness of over three decades of broken promises The Prevention Institute has released a video called “We’re Not Buying It” that debunks the Food Industry’s claims that it’s trying to be part of the solution. Take a look at it here:

*|YOUTUBE:ab9zbqHJ_p4:300|* 

What do you think? Do you trust BIG Food companies with our children’s health? And why do food companies’ rights to market unhealthy products to our children trump our right to raise healthy kids who aren’t exposed to junk food marketing? It seems like profits are prioritized over our kids, doesn’t it?

NOW is the time for us TO ACT AND TAKE A STAND!  The decision on whether to move forward with voluntary guidelines on advertising to kids will be made in the next few weeks. We only have a SHORT TIME to make a difference. If you believe our kids’ health is more important than food company profits, click here to read The Prevention Institute’s online petition to President Obama.  Then SIGN the petition and SHARE it with your concerned family members and friends. Together, let’s gather over 100,000 signatures. Not only can we do it, we have to! Our children’s health depends on it!

For my part, I will continue to call out Big Food and their harmful marketing tactics against kids in a new series of blog posts called, “Kid Marketing … It’s Just Not a Fair Fight.” If you have any suggestions of products or advertising for me to review, please email me or leave a comment below.

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28 thoughts on “Marketing to Kids: Collateral Damage in Big Food’s Profit Hunt

  1. Thank you for such an insightful blog post. I hope this makes parents more aware of the subtle methods that food companies employ to snag customers, young and old alike.

    The one thing I would like to point out, however, is that children don’t become exposed to this stuff in a vacuum. Most of these exposures occur during the times that children watch television shows geared to children. I would contend that if parents turn off the television it would benefit the children in many ways beyond just avoiding marketing targeted at them. I know that opening a box of cereal on a school morning is a quick and easy solution for a busy time, but what about taking those couple of hours that your children would be watching cartoons on a Saturday morning, and preparing some healthy pre-made “grab and go” breakfasts for the week? The children could be part of the preparation. They can learn a lot about nutrition while you cook, bond with Mom and/or Dad, and also avoid having their brains turned to mush watching the junk that poses as entertainment when, really, it’s just a vehicle for selling stuff. Also, those commercials would be totally useless if parents simply shake their heads from left to right when children beg for the garbage du jour.

    • And the kids would learn that cooking is an easy, fun and rewarding creative process! Not just “all the peeling…”. The parents could discover they have a backbone through the appropriate head movement, too. Love it.

  2. I do not approve of marketing unhealthy products to children… or to adults, for that matter. However, in our capitalistic society everyone has the right to market and sell their product… it is up to the individual comsumer to choose whether or not to buy the product. In the case of breakfast cereals, children are not the ones buying the product… the parents are. I know that parents “give in” to “make their children happy.” What we need is more education and a complete overhaul of the food industry, making healthy food affordable and, ultimately, the only choice.

  3. Great post Bruce!
    Breakfast foods are especially frustrating. Unfortunately, these heavily marketed products not only give parents a false impression they’re feeding their kids a healthy breakfast, it also leads to the parents thinking highly processed cereals are good for them as well. It’s one of the biggest hurdles we have to work through in coaching clients about good nutrition at Life Time Fitness. We have two boys and I couldn’t imagine sending them to school after eating these highly-processed, nutrient-depleted, bowls of sugar/starch. Keep it up!

  4. This is a great article – thank you! It really underlines what I see as a vitally important need in our society – to teach good critical thinking skills! I watch t.v. with my children and ask them what they think of this commercial or that…do they think Tony the Tiger will really come pat them on the shoulder if they eat Frosted Flakes? We evaluated ad claims and decide together what sounds silly or highly unlikely. I take my children with me when I peruse the cereal aisle, and if there is a cereal they are interested in trying, we read the ingredients list together. I have hard and fast rules in my house banning HFCS and partially hydrogenated oils. My children now completely ignore commercials because they know they are hearing little more than lies. I understand the urge of some parents to simply switch off the t.v., but doing so only delays the inevitable in a world where we are constantly bombarded with advertisements.

  5. Excellent post Bruce! I know which brands to avoid, but could you give me your opinion on brands that are good? Brands that don’t use this crap in their foods and are truly healthy for our children?

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Delia. Believe me, I don’t have it all figured out… yet. While I do feel there are some brands that are “better” than others, I don’t think the solution lies in a particular brand. For me the solution is figuring out how do I minimize the amount of processed food I eat. To meet that goal it’s about finding recipes that fit my life and shopping for sustainable food.

      What do other people think? Have you found the answers in a particular brand? Share your story and helpful ideas.

      • I haven’t figured it all out either, that is for sure. But as a mom of young children, I have come to appreciate the Trader Joe’s chain of grocery stores. They carry almost exclusively their own brand of foods – many of which are made with whole grains – at reasonable prices. They do not have ANY mass-media character advertising on the products they sell – including their children’s cereal, yogurt, etc… I never take my children down the cereal aisle in regular grocery stores – we just skip it all together. We also skip television, so that helps tremendously. If you have a Trader Joe’s in your area, and are trying to combat the relentless marketing to your kids, then Trader Joe’s could be a tremendous help.

      • I have scoured the ingredients of every boxed cereal I’ve thought about buying for myself/my kids and I’ve given up. PLAIN old fashioned Cheerios…the third ingredient is SUGAR. A 2/3 cup serving (TINY) of any brand of raisin bran has anywhere from 17-20 grams of sugar…and who actually eats only 2/3 cup? And with a half cup of skim milk added to it (who uses only 4 oz. of milk?) you’re looking at another 6g of sugar. So best case scenario is you’ve already had 25g of sugar and your day has barely begun. Plain oatmeal is the only “cereal” we have in the house; certainly no “kids” cereals…I can’t find anything acceptable even in the organic store; everything has some kind of rice syrup, barley syrup, honey, etc. way up high in the ingredients and it’s all garbage.

        • Bacon and eggs, Greek yogurt and fruit or another protein-rich, lower carb breakfast is better for kids to start the day with instead of a bowl of starch anyway. You’re right that there is not a good option in breakfast cereals, even if they’re organic.

          • Yep, they usually have a couple of eggs, sometimes a slice of Ezekial raisin bread with natural peanut butter. No juice in this house either; you can have water or iced green tea — unsweetened.

    • The problem is not specifically with the brand. The “brand” makes a contract with a factory that has contracts with several different “brands”. They fill the order for one, stop the lines, change the packaging, and restart the lines. DH used to work in a plant that processed potatoes into french fries. They had contracts with Safeway, McCain, McDonald’s and a few different “no-name/house-brand/generic” fries. When they finished with one order they just started the next with the specified packaging. There was no other difference. Part of one potato might end up in a McDonald’s deep fryer, another part of the same potato could be packaged in a Safeway brand bag. Hundreds of other food processing facilities work exactly the same way and the orders from any one company probably come from many different places, depending only on what part of the country you are talking about. There is no McDonald’s french fry factory. The fries don’t even come from the same field of potatoes. The ones you buy at Safeway and put in your oven might, though. Next month somebody else might have the contract and parts of the same potato could go to Dairy Queen and Trader Joes.

      Some brand names do specify certain recipes, but that does not mean other brands cannot use the same ingredients in essentially identical proportions. In fact, you can bet that another brand does and will use the same factories to fill their orders. It makes economic sense.

  6. My son attended an awesome soccer camp this summer. It was however, sponsored by Frosted Flakes. The kids were supposed to get free samples of the cereal which luckily didn’t arrive and the coaches were supposed to put in a shill for Frosted Flakes. Again, luckily, the coach that was telling us about this said he could never in good conscience tell kids they should eat that stuff. But for a 7 year old, a coach at a summer camp is like a hero. If he had said it was a good way to start the day, my kid would have believed him.

  7. I don’t think it is a case of a certain brand that can be counted on to be a universal best choice because they are not universally available and because formulations are constantly being “improved”. You need to read the label, find out what the stuff is and then you have the information to make a choice. And you have to keep doing it. Don’t expect someone to provide the answers for you. That’s what the food industry is doing – and look at the way they do it! At face value, everything sounds wonderful and healthy, but that is the marketing department’s job, regardless of the true worth of the product. Period.

    As a consumer, and especially as a parent, it is our job to find out what is really being sold and decide if it has value for us. If, in our informed opinion, a product is unhealthy, un-natural, unethical or un-necessary – then Don’t Buy It! If 50% of the people who buy the crap stopped and explained the reasons to their kids (in age appropriate terms), the manufacturers would definitely notice. If 90% stopped, there would be a very good chance that production of that particular item would cease. Something else would likely take its place, but if we, as consumers, consistently rejected the garbage, things eventually would have to change. The industry puts a lot of time, effort and research, as well as money into what they do. Why aren’t we willing to put in the time, effort and research? Is it just not “convenient”?

    I really don’t think that more regulation is the answer. It may provide a short term solution, but then we begin to rely on the regulators to look after our interests, then the industry lobbies and we are back at square one. Furthermore, are we really comfortable trusting the regulatory bodies? The FDA has approved some pretty scary stuff from Aspartame to Methamphetamine (at street level dosages for weight loss and ADHD in people over six years of age – Google it) and they already control what these marketers are allowed to say to our kids. I think this is a DIY project that needs as many participants as blogs like this one can gather. All we need to do is get people to start really thinking about what they are consuming. Learning that what you thought was a natural vanilla flavour is really something from beaver anal glands sorta gets your attention, doesn’t it? Want some of that Vanilla Special Krud with artificially thickened fat free dairy product and sweet tasting chlorine atoms? Its not just kids who fall for the marketing…

    • OK, I have to qualify my comment that more regulation is probably not the answer. I just heard that Quebec has had restrictions against advertising unhealthy foods and beverages to children for about thirty years. Quebec has the lowest childhood obesity rates in Canada.

      I am really, really glad that those children are likely to have fewer health problems than most but, unfortunately, it seems this proves that more regulation is, in fact, at least a partial answer. It means that society really has been effectively dumbed down. It means we aren’t capable of sensible thought any more. It means that we are going to lose our freedoms because we are abusing them. We care more about who gets to stay on the island than what is happening to our kids. We need a third party to protect our kids from our ineptitude.

  8. I honestly believe that this issue is a failure in education. What percentage of soy beans are non GMO? The greatest consumption of soy in china was during a period of famine when it was also legalized to eat their children (imagine, soy was that unpleasant that they would rather canabalize) A lot of health nuts still recommend eating soy along with other “organic” food. As was stated in another topic, beaver anal glands are by definition a “natural product” The US labels don’t mean much, because we don’t have a good system for operationally defining the food production process. I can use chemicals that are considered “organic” but are proven to be more carcinogenic and worse for the environment than some of the other pest/herbicides. I can feed a cow non-gmo, organic corn, but that is still not what the cow is supposed to eat. A student in my school who was grotesquely obese (6th grade, 5’4″ and almost 300 lbs) has a doctor order that states that he can not eat the school cafeteria food, because federal regulations now allow soy, and only highly processed low fat, or no fat milk. He now bags a lunch (yesterday he had full fat greek yogurt with a handful of berries, chocolate coconut milk, and a chicken breast– a lot of food and calories for a 6th grader…but he has since lost over 40 lbs. His mother said that she can actually buy clothes for him at walmart again.) I can’t wait to see the “dinner plate” take over the food pyramid and provide absolutely no solution. Educate the educators and the regulators….if possible :-/

  9. I use to love cereal especially Frosted Flakes and I use to think it was healthy. I would have it for dinner too sometimes! I always wondered why I gained wieght and my boyfriend say maybe it was the cereal. I was like no way it’s healthy! I was fooled by the Ads too. The Apple Jacks commercials are worse. They make apples seem bad.

  10. Bruce, I love your blog. Processed foods have been making me sick for years, and now I’m starting to understand why. Thank you for the education.

    When my son was in 1st grade, they provided “breakfast” to every child as soon as class started for the day. “Breakfast” was Cocoa Puffs and vitamin-enriched donuts. I didn’t want to make my son be the only kid in his class not eating a donut, but when in just two weeks he started blowing up like Mr. Puffy, we had to have a talk. And I’m hardly a weight nazi. That stuff is poison.

    Please keep it coming.

  11. 1% milk?

    Heaven forbid we should give kids full fat milk. I guess when you’re eating solid sugar you should just pour more sugar on it.

  12. The only advertisement geared toward kids that I think duped me and my mother was “Kix: Kid tested, mother approved”. Still slightly better than the sugary cereals they have now. Oatmeal was a staple for me growing up. Love the insight on this!