Marketing to kids glut in restaurants, stores, raises concerns

New report warns of negative impact on children’s health

Marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to kids is ubiquitous in point-of-sale locations across Canada, like grocery stores, restaurants and corner stores, according to new research from the University of Waterloo. The report, which compiles data from over 2000 restaurants and 800 stores that sell food, details how food and beverage companies employ dozens of tactics to market their products directly to children.

“We were astonished to see the pervasiveness of marketing to kids in stores and restaurants across Canada,” says Dr. Leia Minaker PhD, Associate Professor at Waterloo and author of the report. “While we expected to see marketing to kids in Canadian stores, we were surprised by the breadth of techniques employed by food and beverage marketers.”

The research report, funded by Heart & Stroke, included data collected from 11 regions across eight provinces and two territories.  The use of child themes and designs was the most common marketing technique, followed by the use of branded characters. “ We see marketers using bright colours, images and other design elements that are commonly associated with children, like magic, adventure and zoo animals,” explains Dr. Minaker. “These themes and designs appeared in many places, including on a third of beverage fridges and two thirds of ice cream fridges.”

Children are exposed to a substantial amount of advertising for unhealthy foods and beverages before they even enter a store, according to the report. Half of the ads outside of stores and 41% outside restaurants used at least one child-directed marketing technique. The bombardment continues within stores with displays in the middle of aisles featuring child themes and branded characters. The research found on average there are nine of these displays per store.

Store checkouts are also considered a prime location for marketing to kids because items are displayed at children’s eye level and within their reach. This placement encourages ‘pester power’— when a child nags or pesters their parents to make an impulse purchase – a key reason why marketing to kids is so effective. The report found that nearly all stores (84%) had gum and candy available at the checkout, while only 6% had fruit available and only 2% had vegetables.

The prevalence of marketing to kids is troubling because it works, leading to increased consumption of unhealthy foods and sugary drinks. Children aged 9-13 in Canada are getting almost 60% of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods, high in salt, sugars and saturated fat -- more than any other age group.

“Food marketers do not have kid’s health at heart,” says Doug Roth, CEO of Heart & Stroke. “Given the high proportion of child-directed marketing observed in both stores and restaurants in this Canadian research, it’s clear that policies aimed to restrict marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to kids– something long promised by the federal government– should include point-of-sale locations.”

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Kate Comeau, Communications Advisor, Mission