A researcher looks at marketing to kids

What marketing messages does your six-year-old see when she plays games on your laptop? Researcher and parent Monique Potvin Kent investigated. What she found shocked her
Researcher Maureen Potvin Kent displays some of the products advertised to children and teens online.

Researcher Monique Potvin Kent displays some of the products advertised to children and teens on the websites she investigated.

Today’s kids spend almost eight hours a day in front of screens – at home, at school and elsewhere. They see advertising during those hours, but what, and how much? To find out, Heart & Stroke turned to Dr. Monique Potvin Kent, an expert on food and beverage marketing and children’s nutrition. She’s a researcher at the School of Epidemiology, Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine.

Looking at a one-year period (June 2015 – May 2016), she reviewed the top 10 most popular websites for children (ages 2 – 11) and adolescents (ages 12 – 17). She determined the volume of food and beverage advertising and carried out a nutritional analysis of the products.

The research showed that in one year, children viewed more than 25 million food and beverage ads on their favourite websites. Of these ads, over 90% were for unhealthy foods high in fat, sodium, or sugar. (To classify the nutrient content of the foods and beverages, Dr. Potvin Kent used a model developed by the Pan American Health Organization.) The most frequently advertised product categories on children’s favourite websites are restaurants, cakes, cookies, ice cream and cereal, according to the research.

The most frequently advertised food and beverage product categories on teens’ favourite websites are cakes, cookies and ice cream, cereal, restaurants and sugar sweetened beverages.

We asked Dr. Potvin Kent to reflect on what she found.

 What surprised you most about these results?

The sheer volume of the food and beverage ads online was surprising. The numbers are very high compared to what you see in TV advertising. With TV, there are regulations about how many ads you can show in a 30-minute program or a 60-minute program. With digital advertising on the Internet, there is no upper threshold.

Do you think parents are aware of how many messages their kids are seeing?

Absolutely not! Digital media is different than television. With television, the parent is often in the room or within earshot. When kids are online, parents are not always at their sides and, with tablets and smartphones, the screen is small and only visible to the user.

Even at school, when children are online for educational purposes, they are seeing unhealthy food and beverage advertising. For example, one of the top 10 sites for kids (and for teens) in my research was an educational site called coolmath-games.com. I asked my 11-year-old son if he ever went on that site and his response was, “Oh yeah, we go to that site all the time. It’s one of the rewards in class if you’re done your work quickly.” 

Teachers are probably not aware of the magnitude of digital unhealthy food and beverage advertising on some educational sites. You can sometimes bypass this advertising by paying a membership fee to the site but I’m not sure if this is occurring in public schools. 

How is this onslaught of marketing affecting kids?

Unhealthy food and beverage marketing is having a big impact on children’s health. We know from extensive research that food advertising influences children’s obesity rates, their food preferences and their food intake. 


Proportion of ads on kids’ favourite websites that promoted unhealthy foods high in fat, sodium, or sugar.

Food advertising also influences their requests for specific food products I think all parents can relate to that. My son asked me to buy Fruit by the Foot, a product heavily marketed to children on television, almost every day for three years! He’s given up — thank goodness. 

This is one of the reasons I got into this line of research, seeing the impact it had on my own children. 

Online advertising brings new formats such as interactive games and activities. How effective are these?

The research shows that they’re tremendously effective. Children — including teens — often don’t realize they’re being marketed to. Companies do a great job of blending marketing with entertainment. If a company can get a child to play an advergame for seven minutes, that’s seven minutes to immerse the child in their brand. A television commercial is only 15 or 30 seconds.

Advertisers can also get kids to market to their friends by sharing their scores from video games, or inviting friends to come to the site. I think a lot of these techniques are flying under the radar of even the most sophisticated child or teen. 

I don’t like to place the burden on parents. They have a tough job already.

Monique Potvin Kent Researcher and parent

It’s important to remember that advertising today is not like advertising in the 60s, 70s or 80s. Our behaviour is continuously tracked online and, as a result, companies can target ads specifically to us. That means that based on where your child has been online, what they’ve clicked on, what contests they’ve entered, data is being collected on them. There is a recommendation in Canada that companies should not track children’s online behaviour, but there is no oversight.  

What advice would you give to parents?

I don’t really like to place the burden on parents. They have a tough job already. If we change policy at a higher level, then it trickles down and it makes life easier for parents. So I would urge parents to support restrictions on food marketing to children. That’s the number one thing.  Restricting marketing to kids is a policy that really does support parents. Parents can’t do it on their own; schools can’t do it on their own. Having federal, provincial and municipal level policies on food and beverage marketing — that’s going to have a real impact. Anything that makes a parent’s job easier is a good thing. 

 Top 10 websites preferred by children (age 2 – 11) in study


Top 10 websites preferred by teens (age 12 – 17) in study


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