Teaching our children to think critically about food marketing and advertising takes a bit of work, and it starts early. But we can teach them to understand fast food claims to make wise decisions.
Our kids are bombarded 24/7 with advertising.
Marketers aren’t dumb – they know what they’re doing!
Advertisers know that children’s brains are continually developing new neural connections, especially related to emotion, so that if they embed their slogan or logo into your child’s mind now, it will forever be a happy memory for them.
Don’t believe me? If you’re one of the “80s kids” like me, I’ll bet you can finish every one of these:
Gimme a break, gimme a break, break me off ……
I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a ….
Get your skis shined up, grab a stick of …
Two all-beef patties, special ….
Leggo my …
Did I just prove that advertising works – on children? (It works on adults, too, but not nearly as well as it does on children)
Advertisers also know that our children have limited experience. This makes them especially vulnerable to advertising methods such as appeals to popularity, celebrity endorsements, and unbelievable claims.
This marketing concerns everything which kids consume, which naturally also involves food. For years, advertisers have been targeting children, persuading them (and yes, us when we were children, too) that certain foods are cool, fun, and delicious, based simply on the name of the brand.
Of course that means children gobble up processed foods and fast foods whenever they can. This is causing rocketing levels of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cavities, and more.
Since our goals are to have our children lead long and healthy lives, we want exactly the opposite of what the advertisers and processed food manufacturers want!
Marketing and Young Children
When our children are very young, the best solution is to just keep them away from food marketing.
Choose television channels and streaming services which do not advertise food during children’s shows.
Keep the TV off at friends’ houses or in hotels. When I’ve had my children at doctor’s offices and other places with a television, they’ve always been willing to switch the channel to child-friendly programming.
Stay away from places where promotional mascots and posters are abundant.
It’s not about completely avoiding marketing, which is impossible. It’s about minimizing the presence of marketing in your kid’s life.
Marketing and Older Children
Our older children have more agency. They won’t just follow our footsteps when we minimize exposure to advertising.
Don’t worry, though – that defiance is a good thing, and it’s exactly what they need to use against marketing!
Around the age when our children start seeking out and consuming advertisements, we need to sit down and explain to them how it works. They might not be very open to this conversation, so it will be easier if they already understand some of the concepts before they hit that rebellious age in which they know everything!
Start with speaking with them as though they were very uninformed adults. I’ve learned, from talking with Old Order Mennonites and from online friends in third world countries, that this takes a lot of delicacy. Everyone wants to be recognized and respected, and to be treated as though they are intelligent and capable of making their own decisions. When we do this with our children, they’re more open to listening to us instead of listening to the marketing team of their favourite fast food restaurant.
Talk to your children about the difference in profits – and therefore the difference in advertising opportunities and lobbying power – between an orange farmer and a chocolate bar manufacturer. Teach them that the people with the loudest voices are sometimes the ones with the money, not the people who are right.
Playing Devil’s Advocate
Next, begin a fun exercise where you try and label things as good or bad at random.
The main focus should be on foods, but you can talk about all sorts of things.
This is called playing Devil’s Advocate, and it teaches your kid to think like one of these marketing teams, so as to analyze their advertisements better and not take their claims at face value.
Finally, ask your kid to deconstruct advertisements from time to time.
Just point out billboards on the street and ask them why they think the marketer chose that picture, color, or phrase.
Or send them a video online and ask them whether they believe the claims in it, or what the real evidence says.
By getting your child to think creatively and critically about advertising, you are giving them the tools to avoid falling for the mind games which advertisers play.
This may not convince your kid to eat healthy. We want children who can think critically, and that means they can disagree with us, too.
But at least it will show them what healthy looks like, what healthy does not look like, and not to trust advertising. Which means that, if they want to eat healthy, they have the tools they need to do it.