Why marketing to kids must stop

Our children are bombarded with ads for unhealthy foods and beverages, and it’s harming their health
Two kids using a smartphone

The federal government has made a commitment to restrict marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to kids, but has not yet fulfilled this promise. Heart & Stroke dietitian Carol Dombrow explains why the time to act is now.

What is marketing to kids?  

The line between children’s entertainment and ads is often blurry, with marketing messages popping up where our kids learn and play. Each year, the Canadian food and beverage industry spends $1.1 billion on the marketing of foods and beverages to children, with kids seeing an estimated 1,500 ads annually on social media alone. Marketing to children is much more seamless, sophisticated, and interactive than it was 10 to 15 years ago. 

Food and beverage marketers target our kids in many effective ways, including: 

  • cartoon characters on sugary breakfast cereals
  • product placement in-store at a child’s eye level
  • TV commercials on children’s programming
  • product placements in children’s movies, cartoons or TV shows
  • sponsorship of kids’ programs and educational materials
  • online video games and programming
  • vending machine advertising
  • websites and social media
Do these marketing tactics really work?

Absolutely. This marketing not only appeals to children, but builds brand loyalty and impacts the foods they eat. Research shows that children as young as three can recognize or name food and beverage brands and prefer foods from a favoured brand. Children also influence what foods their parents buy, ”pestering” them to purchase certain products.

Why do we need to restrict marketing to kids?

Most marketing to kids is for unhealthy foods and beverages. For example, more than 50 million food and beverage ads appear on the top 10 children’s websites each year, and over 90% of them are for ultra-processed foods, like soft drinks, sweetened breakfast cereals, cookies and chicken nuggets. Currently, children and youth in Canada get over half of their calories from these ultra-processed foods which are high in sodium, sugars and saturated fats.  This type of eating crowds out the nutrient-rich food, like vegetables and fruit, whole grains and proteins that our children need for development, and increases their risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer later in life. 

Rigorous restrictions would protect kids from manipulative marketing strategies used to push unhealthy products and will support parents to make better food choices for their kids.

Do restrictions on marketing to kids already exist in Canada?

Yes. Quebec has had legislation since 1980 that prohibits commercial advertising directed at children under 13.  

This legislation has helped the province achieve the highest fruit and vegetable consumption levels and the lowest obesity rates in Canada among children ages 6-11. Even so, Quebec’s advertising restrictions allow some ads to slip through. 

The food and beverage industry in Canada has set its own standards for restricting the advertising of certain food and beverages to children almost 25 years ago. But the standards are voluntary and not all companies participate.  Canadian research has found this voluntary effort to be ineffective.

In July 2023, the Canadian food and beverage and broadcast industries implemented a code similar to the restrictions in Quebec – but it falls short.

Bottom-line: research across the world, including the latest guidelines from the World Health Organization, has shown that voluntary standards are not effective in protecting children from marketing of unhealthy foods.

Why is Heart & Stroke advocating for change? 

Heart & Stroke is calling on the federal government to introduce comprehensive regulations to restrict the marketing of certain foods and beverages to children under the age of 13 because:

  • Ultra-processed foods are not part of a healthy eating pattern in Canada’s Food Guide and are linked to an increase in heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancers.
  • Restricting the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children will protect children and support parents as they help their children develop healthy eating habits and food preferences.
  • Unhealthy food and beverage marketing to kids is pervasive. Canadian families need the support of comprehensive regulations that reflect where marketers are reaching kids.
  • People want to see this change! A recent poll found that 71% of Canadians support the federal government restricting the marketing of food and beverages high in salt, sugars and saturated fat to children under 13.

Heart & Stroke is looking forward to seeing the federal government move quickly to fulfill its long-held commitment to restrict marketing to kids as part of the implementation of Canada’s Healthy Eating Strategy. 

See Heart & Stroke’s position statement on marketing to kids.