The junk food industry is targeting our children  

A gummy candy shimmies on stage, dancing to “Flashdance.” The music swells, it pulls a chain and is showered in multi-colored candies. The ad, for Nerds Gummy Clusters, was one of dozens of food ads that 123 million people saw during the 2024 Super Bowl. While the nostalgic soundtrack entertained adults, the cartoon candies are engineered to appeal to a different audience: children.  

And it works. Following the ad, my four-year-old shouted, “NERDS! Mom, can we buy them?!” Two weeks later, the ad’s influence was still palpable when she begged for them in the supermarket.  

A 30-second commercial seems harmless. However, new research from my lab shows that food marketing to kids is more than a nuisance: it’s a key driver of poor diets. Food marketing impacts what kids like, buy and eat — increasing the risk of dental caries, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Like tobacco, tighter regulation of junk food marketing to children is needed to protect their health.  

This week, a bill introduced in the Senate, the Childhood Diabetes Reduction Act, proposes a crucial step forward by proposing limits on the types of techniques used to target kids (for example, dancing animated candies) as well as limits on where such ads can appear (e.g., on television programs and websites heavily viewed by children). 

The bill would cut kids’ exposure to the most harmful types of food marketing — which is imperative, because they are currently surrounded by it. Companies spend $14 billion each year on marketing to children, over 80 percent of which is for fast food and other ultraprocessed foods like snacks, candy and sodas. Kids see ads on television, in physical environments and increasingly, in digital spaces. Youth of color are disproportionately affected, with companies using ad placement and creative content to target Black and Hispanic adolescents. 

Digital marketing is particularly worrisome because it often doesn’t look like marketing. My kids’ favorite YouTube channel, a “miniature” cooking show, features desserts often sporting fondant Oreos or an M&Ms toothpick flag. Companies also get kids to do their online marketing for them via engagement techniques like asking them to play games, post pictures with foods, or to tag their friends. This “disguised” promotion limits kids’ ability to distinguish these marketing techniques from unbranded content — a key step in reducing advertising’s impact on behavior. The collection and use of personal data to generate targeted ads creates ever more powerful platforms, creating a “doubly addictive” experience by leveraging screens that kids can’t stop watching to promote food they can’t stop eating. 

Kids are also heavily exposed to food marketing in schools. Companies provide sports sponsorships, student incentives (like Pizza Hut’s Book It! Program), branded fundraising and reward programs (such as General Mills’ Box Tops), digital or physical advertisements, and sell fast food in schools. In my six-year-old’s school, in North Carolina, Chick-fil-A is a common sponsor of “school spirit nights,” getting families to eat there while also cementing Chick-fil-A as a central part of the local community.  

To address these problems, governmental regulation is necessary, as industry self-regulation has failed. For example, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, created in 2007 as an attempt to reduce marketing’s harm, has amounted to little more than a marketing ploy, designed to help companies appear as “part of the solution” while failing to reduce the impact on kids.  

Global data show governmental regulations like those proposed in the Childhood Diabetes Reduction Act can help. In 2016, Chile restricted child-directed appeals and placement of ads on children’s programming for unhealthy products and banned their sale and promotion in schools. In 2018, the country began prohibiting unhealthy food ads on any television program between 6am – 10pm. Our research shows these regulations cut kids’ exposure to unhealthy food marketing by over two-thirds. While the Chilean regulation is much more comprehensive than what is being proposed in the U.S., the Senate bill would still achieve important progress by reducing kids’ exposure to the types of targeted marketing most likely to hook them on products.   

Despite its promise, it will likely be an uphill climb to pass the Childhood Diabetes Reduction Act, largely due to First Amendment protection of corporate speech. Moreover, Congress stripped the Federal Trade Commission of its authority to regulate child-directed marketing after a 1980 attempt to limit unhealthy food ads during children’s programs. 

Yet, there is precedent: the U.S. already regulates marketing of harmful substances to children. Since 1998, tobacco companies are prohibited from targeting youth in advertisements. As increasing evidence demonstrates ultra-processed foods can be addictive like tobacco, this precedent could pave a way forward. 

Food marketing hooks kids on unhealthy foods, creating poor eating habits that can last a lifetime. The Senate should pass the Childhood Diabetes Reduction Act as an important first step toward protecting kids’ health. Children deserve to live, learn and play free from the influence of the junk food industry. Regulations on food marketing can help. 

Lindsey Smith Taillie, Ph.D., MPH, is associate professor and associate chair for academics at the Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Department of Nutrition. 

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