A consideration of food marketing to parents

The increase in obesity rates among children is a significant Global public health concern, and diet is a known contributing factor1. Parents play an important role in a child’s diet, and there are many potential influences on parents’ dietary knowledge and attitudes. For instance, parents have been demonstrated to obtain nutritional information from professionals, social networks, and media including magazines, newspapers, and television2,3. While many studies have examined how foods are marketed directly to children, no studies have specifically looked at food marketing to parents. If we seek to improve how and what children eat, we need to understand what types of food products are marketed to parents, and what appeals are used to promote these products.

A content analysis conducted of parenting magazines

Data came from a content analysis study using a sample of six parenting and familyoriented magazines published in 2008 (24 issues total from four months – March, June, September and December). We categorized products by product type, and looked at messages, themes, photos, mentioned ingredients, and claims about the product being nutritious or contributing to health benefits.

Fruit and vegetables rarely advertised

Only seven advertisements were for fruit products (26 advertisements were for fruit juices) and three advertisements were for vegetable products. The most frequently advertised foods were snack products. Other products advertised routinely included dairy products, meats, baked goods, fast food, and packaged meals.

Taste most commonly used message

The most popular promotional theme was taste, with over half of ads mentioning a product’s taste and a quarter highlighting a product being new or improved. Other themes we observed seemed to offer solutions to parenting challenges with messages that these products could save time, ensure kids have fun, or create opportunities for quality family bonding. While many advertisements provided information about the content of the product, others used a more indirect route to persuasion, such as images evoking emotional responses. A majority of adver-tisements showed people with positive expressions, and often showed children playing, or families cooking or eating together. Such images are likely to engage a reader in an emotional way, while text about attributes of the product engages a reader in a logical way.

Claims about health

Advertised food products routinely made health claims by reporting levels of specific vitamins and nutrients, or low levels of fat, sodium, sugar, additives, or preservatives. More than half of the advertisements incorporated the words “healthy” or “nutritious” into product descriptions. Approximately one-fifth of advertisements made a direct claim that the product could improve health, for example, by enhancing physical or mental performance or boosting the immune system.

Helping parents understand ad messages about food

Designing and evaluating interventions, including media literacy efforts, may be warranted to help parents be more aware of the advertisements they are exposed to and how to interpret and use the information provided4. Studying nutrition information provided to parents in other forms of media, including websites, is also clearly of interest, as is longitudinal research to see if exposure to nutritional messages, both positive and negative, influence parental attitudes about food and nutrition over time. Increasing consumption of foods like fruits and vegetables to address obesity has been recommended by the World Health Organization, so identifying how media can be used to promote fruit and vegetable consumption would be useful1. A better understanding of the role of media in influencing parents’ food choices is critical if we are to fully appreciate the role that food marketing plays in promoting and potentially combating the growing obesity problem for both children and adults.

BASED ON: Jennifer A Manganello, Katherine Clegg Smith, Katie Sudakow and Amber C Summers. A content analysis of food advertisements appearing in
parenting magazines. Public Health Nutrition, available on CJO 12/7/12. doi:10.1017/S1368980012005216. © The Nutrition Society, published by Cambridge
University Press, reproduced with permission.

  1. World Health Organization. (March 2013). Obesity and overweight: Fact sheet. Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/
  2. Carruth B, Skinner J. Mothers’ sources of information about feeding their children ages 2 months to 54 months Journal of Nutrition Education. 2001;33(3):143-7.
  3. EUFIC. Consumer Attitudes to food, nutrition and health. Food Today. 1998, August.
  4. Hindin T, Contento I, Gussow J. A media literacy nutrition education curriculum for Head Start parents about the effects of television advertising on their children’s food requests. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 04;104(2):192-8.