Fast Food Advertising: Itís Time To Start Paying AttentionThu 20 Mar 2014
Story by Lauren Madden
As a college student studying advertising, I try to pay attention. I pay attention to TV commercials, and to the billboards and ads that pass me on the subway. I pay attention to the much-too-relevant ads that appear on my Facebook page, to the sponsored content on my Twitter feed. I think of it as homework to notice the ads around me and to analyze them in a way that most people wouldnít, all in an attempt to learn something about the study of communications, so I can graduate and go get myself a good job. But at the end of the day, I realize that a lot of advertising can be manipulative and harmful Ė especially from the junk food and fast food industries.
Even as a student who has taken years of courses on advertising theory and strategy and who has held multiple internships and jobs that have exposed me to all types of advertising and communication, I still am influenced on a subconscious level by marketing every day. I value a brand name item as much as any of those in my peer group. I pick to shop at places that say something about me, even if the product itself doesnít have much differentiation. I do these things because I am human, and because marketing works. I could try to ignore all of the persuasive elements in my environment, but the fact is that marketing is everywhere, all around me, at every time of the day, no matter what.
So even as a student with all of this awareness about how marketing works and what my spending habits mean, I still give in to it. I play the game Ė to an extent. But what about those other members of society who are not as aware? More specifically, what about children? The fact is Ė advertising can be a straight up dirty business. Every day, we are exposed to ads that play on our weaknesses. Marketers and advertisers both know what human beings want and need, and exploit these needs to make a profit. One segment of the marketing industry is especially destructive over the others, and theyíve found their perfect target.
The junk food industry spends about 2 billion dollars alone each year targeting children. They are the perfect audience, after all. They are especially vulnerable and open to influences from advertisers because they donít know any better. But childhood obesity rates are at an all-time high: with about one in three American kids being overweight or obese, it is the #1 health concern among parents in the US, above drug abuse and smoking. Obesity can lead to life-long health complications such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol levels, as well as psychological risks like low self-esteem, negative body image and depression. One specifically scary study found that elementary school kids in the U.S. see an average of 254 ads from McDonalds each year, while preschool age kids see 208. Imagine the impact those ads alone have on a childís subconscious desire for unhealthy foods Ė and thatís just one fast food restaurant in the sea of unhealthy options
Where is the line drawn between what is ethical marketing and what is simply taking advantage of a group of society that cannot recognize they are being sold to? We need to be more active in questioning our surroundings and what is being sold to us. If you are a parent, or anyone active in a community with influence in this area, it is so important now more than ever to take a stand and find ways to fight against an industry that is causing massive health problems for our children, even if that just means making small changes in your daily parenting routine and choices. By teaching kids where real food comes from and creating permanent changes in eating habits and patterns, we can make real change in the next generationís future. Otherwise, we risk facing for the first time in history the startling risk that this generation will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
My ultimate goal in studying advertising is to understand consumer behavior in the non-profit sector and then influence that behavior toward a good cause. But thatís not how everyone in the industry sees it, and this serves as an example to help me think about the ways in which I can conduct myself in my future career to make a positive difference in peopleís lives. But it also shows me all the ways that I am, myself, a victim to marketersí powers; it makes me feel robbed by the junk food industry for all of its influence that it has already had during my childhood years; and it makes me aware to all that I still need to be paying more attention to.
For more information, check out Anna Lappeís amazing TED talk on fast food marketing to kids here. Also, Food Mythbusters is working to expose the fast food industryís exploitation of children and Digital Ads is a good resource to understand how marketers target youth with junk food ads.
Itís time to stand up for real food and cooking skills and teach the next generation what the junk and fast food companies are taking away from them. Itís time to start paying more attention.
About the Author: Lauren is a senior studying advertising and psychology at Boston University. She is interested in communications in the non-profit sector and finding ways to use creativity and passion to make the world a happier and healthier place. Check out her blog or her Twitter: @lauren_madden
Also: Take a look at this infographic that displays statistics on fast-food marketing to children.
Photo credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
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