Marketing Food to Children


In 2005, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) published an influential report regarding the impact of advertising on children’s food choice and obesity[1].  In this report the IOM called upon industry and government to work together to promote healthier diets and develop standards for marketing healthier food to children.  In essence, the IOM recommends that businesses and policy makers leverage the powerful tools marketers use to promote their products in favor of healthier diets.  A follow up report in 2013 also published by the IOM[2] indicates that some progress has been made though there is much more needed to be done. 

While marketing food to children is highly criticized by some, there is research based evidence that marketing healthy foods works. In this piece we will briefly describe three research studies that illustrate the power for good that food marketing yields.

In schools in rural and upstate New York, 208 children ranging from 8 to 11 years old of different backgrounds were given the opportunity to take a cookie or apple at the end of the lunch line. After a baseline was established, Elmo stickers were placed on the apples in an effort to market the apples. The addition of a sticker on the apple nearly doubled the children’s odds of taking an apple rather than a cookie, as compared to the baseline.[3]

In a two part study in New York, Study 1 centered on carrots paired with an attractive name in five elementary schools. Selection and consumption were measured over a week compared to controls. It found that elementary students ate twice the percentage of their carrots if attractive names were given to the carrots than if not. Study 2 tracked food sales of vegetables in two elementary schools that were systematically attractively named or not named over a two-month period. Study 2 found that elementary school students were 16% more likely to persistently choose more hot vegetable dishes when they were given fun or attractive names.[4]

Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior and nutritional science at Cornell University, suggests a popular CAN approach to changing food behavior. When visiting five schools in New York, Wansink noticed fruits were being sold in metal chafing dishes, in a dim corner of the serving line, under a sneeze shield. Wansink suggested putting the bowl in an attractive bowl in a well-lit part of the lunch line. This accomplished three goals; first, it made the fruit more convenient to select, second, the fruit appeared more attractive, third, the fruit appeared more normal-that is, it seemed more reasonable to take fruit. Thus, the CAN approach was born. The CAN approach has been used in elementary schools to help guide students to eating healthy foods without changing the food items.[5]

Lastly, in a collaborative effort between the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement and Super Sprowtz, a company that promotes healthy eating through vegetable characters with special super powers, researchers measured the impact of Super Sprowtz media in 11 elementary school cafeterias in a large urban school district. The media researchers installed were a wrap-around vinyl banner that fastens to the base of a salad bar and a flat-screen television that displayed clips of Super Sprowtz characters delivering nutrition messages. In cafeterias with both the vinyl banners and flat screens, 239.2% more students took vegetables from the salad bar.

There is evidence showing that marketing healthy, nutritious food to children can have a significant impact on their diets. As of 2005, over half of all nutrition assistance program participants are children, who in turn, eat in school lunches. By marketing healthy nutrition to children in schools, children who do not always get substantial meals would have the opportunity to choose healthy food during the day.[6]


Drew Hanks, PhD, Ohio State University

[3] Wansink, Brian, David R. Just, and Collin R. Payne. “Can branding improve school lunches?.” Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine 166, no. 10 (2012): 967-968.

[4] Wansink, Brian, David R. Just, Collin R. Payne, and Matthew Z. Klinger. “Attractive names sustain increased vegetable intake in schools.” Preventive medicine 55, no. 4 (2012): 330-332.

[5] Wansink, Brian. “Change their choice! Changing behavior using the CAN approach and activism research.” Psychology & Marketing 32, no. 5 (2015): 486-500.

[6] Just, David R., Lisa Mancino, and Brian Wansink. “Could behavioral economics help improve diet quality for nutrition assistance program participants?.” USDA-ERS Economic Research Report 43 (2007).