Cradle to Crave: How Chocolate Marketing Affects Children

Mars Celebrations Chocolate Advertisement, New York Festivals 2012
Mars Corporation, Celebrations Chocolate Advertisement, New York Festivals 2012, “School Bus”


For an adult, chocolate is seen as a decadently delicious sweet treat, but chocolate is not something that  most adults would indulge in on a daily basis.  This is because adults understand that chocolate is not the healthiest food option, and they tend to limit their consumption.  However, children’s’ attitudes towards chocolate and chocolate consumption are very different.  Children equate chocolate with sweetness and fun.  Chocolate is something that they are given on Halloween, Valentines Day, Easter, Christmas, during Birthday parties, and when they can convince their parents to buy it for them at the store.  Children are notorious for demanding sweet things from their parents, and many chocolate companies are capitalizing on this demand by advertising their chocolate to children in a variety of ways.  While marketing to children is quite lucrative, it can also be quite harmful, as there is a growing obesity epidemic both in the US and around the world, and children are uniquely vulnerable to advertising and marketing strategies.

Frys "Five Boys" Milk Chocolate Advertisement
Frys “Five Boys” Milk Chocolate Advertisement

The History

Historically, chocolate makers have advertised their drinks and confections as healthy, nourishing, and a good source of energy for growing children.  In an effort to convince families to choose his chocolate bar, Milton Hershey even went as far as to advertise that Hershey’s milk chocolate bars were “more sustaining than meat”. 

Bar wrapper for Hershey's Milk Chocolate bar. ca. 1912-1926
Bar wrapper for Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar. ca. 1912-1926

Defining the Problem

This begs the question, exactly how healthy is chocolate?  The answer to this question is fluid, as not every chocolate bar is made the same way.  A basic chocolate bar contains cacao, cocoa butter, and sugar, which is basically cacao, fat, and sugar.  The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that “children, adolescents, and adults limit intake of solid fats (major sources of saturated and trans fatty acids), cholesterol, sodium, added sugars” (CDC, 2015).  As even the most basic chocolate bar is loaded with fat and sugar, chocolate bars are not considered to be a healthy food by CDC standards.  These CDC nutrition standards are a direct response to obesity. 

The CDC defines obesity is as having a weight greater than “is generally considered healthy for a given height”.  There has been a marked rise in obesity rates in adults from 13% in 1962 to 34.9% in 2012.  Children’s obesity rates have also been on the rise, and obesity rates have “doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years” (CDC, 2015).  This rapid rise of obesity in the US is a problem, because obesity increases a person’s risk of developing coronary heart disease, stroke, certain types of cancers, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and in some cases, infertility (CDC, 2015).  A rapid rise in obesity amongst children means that these children live with these conditions for longer, and they are likely to live shorter lives and fewer children of their own.

With so many bad effects stemming from the obesity epidemic, the government should have some kind of regulations in place to protect children from the advertising an marketing of chocolate products to children.  Unfortunately, these regulations are slow in coming, if at all.  Chocolate corporations are allowed to advertise their products specifically towards children and adolescents using the media, television, radio, internet, games, product placement in stores, vending machines in schools, chocolate milk in school cafeterias, and on school buses.  Children and adolescents are literally bombarded with advertisements and marketing campaigns all the time (Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, 2015).  Children see ads like the ones below, that promote the health of chocolate flavored milk, and children are led to believe that chocolate milk is healthy, full of vitamins and nutrients, and an essential part of their day.

This advertisement for chocolate milk shows children that they should undermine their parents in order to get them to buy them the healthy chocolate that they both need and crave.  Notice that the mother gives in to the child after the milk man “angel” explains all the healthy benefits of chocolate milk.

This advertisement for Barny snack cakes plays on the fun that children have when they eat Barny snacks.  Notice that the Barny snacks use a cartoon teddy bear to lead the boy around a Wonka-esque fantasy world of chocolate where they jump on a trampoline mountain made of cake.  Once again, the child has undermined parental authority, as the bear shows that the adventure was a secret when he winks at the boy.  Then, the Barny snacks are shown to be a healthy wholesome food, as they are made with “wheat, chocolate, and eggs”.  When the snack is finally shown, it is a cake filled with chocolate cream, which is obviously not the healthy snack that Barny is trying to promote.

The biggest problem with the marketing strategies listed above is that “until the age of about 8 children do not understand advertising’s persuasive intent” (Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood).  While some companies, such as the Mars corporation, claim that they do not target audiences under 12, ad campaigns, like the one shown, below paint a very different picture.  Campaigns with licensed characters like M&Ms may not be targeted for a younger audience, but the cartoonish nature of the characters themselves make it look like children’s programming.  According to the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood’s website, “very young children can’t distinguish between commercials and program content” when they are watching television, so the M&Ms commercials would likely just look like another cartoon that makes them want to eat M&Ms (Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, 2015).

Mars Corporation, Celebrations Chocolates Advertising Campaign, New York Festival 2012, "Gymastics"
Mars Corporation, Celebrations Chocolates Advertising Campaign, New York Festival 2012, “Gymastics”


Many solutions have been thrown around to fix the problems with marketing chocolate and other junk foods to children and adolescents.  These solutions include removing vending machines from schools altogether, regulating how companies market to children, regulating the types of food found in vending machines in schools, and a ban on chocolate milk.  However, food lobbies in the US have tremendous political power, as witnessed during Michelle Obama’s Lets Move! campaign.  This campaign started out as a campaign that was supposed to not only get children to be active and play, but to transform the school lunch system in the US into a healthier and more nutrition program.  Unfortunately, Michelle Obama was not as powerful as the food lobbyists who did not want to see the drop in profits that the removal of processed foods from the school lunch system would have caused (Fed Up, 2015).

Oregon was able to ban chocolate milk from its state school system in 2011.  The chocolate milk ban has been considered a huge victory by advocates of healthier U.S. lunches, but a 2014 Cornell study has criticized the banning of chocolate milk due to the fact that children waste more of the skim milk that chocolate milk was replaced with (Hanks, et al. 2014).  Hanks argues that the loss of “one gram of protein, a decrease of 5 percentage points in the daily recommended intake of calcium, and an additional 1/2 gram of fat per average student’s lunch” is a huge failure on the part of the Oregon state school lunch program, as many US children that use the state school lunch program live in food insecure homes (Freedhoff, 2014). 


With so much political backlash when solutions are proposed by the government, how will we ever be able to regulate how chocolate and food are marketed to our children?  The answer is that there are no easy solutions. 

First, the country needs to admit that we have a problem.  Yes, we live a much more sedentary lifestyle than we did 30 years ago, but we also eat a lot more added sugar.  No, chocolate is not the only villain in the US’s struggle with childhood obesity, but chocolate companies have been using our schools to market their products to our children. 

Parents can limit the use of technology in their homes in order to manage how many advertisements their children are bombarded with, but parents have little to no control over how products are marketed to their children at school.  Children are required to attend school in the US, most parents work outside the home, and private schools are fairly expensive.  So many parents have no choice but to send their children to the same public schools that allow this pervasive marketing to their students.

The CDC believes that limiting our outright banning marketing to school students may reduce the rates of childhood obesity in the US (CDC, 2015).  However, we need strict regulations on how children’s products and food are advertised.  Chocolate companies may feel the need to have “cradle to grave brand loyalty” (Chocolate Class, 2015), but how do they plan to profit off of people who have a drastically reduced lifespan.  You cannot make profits off of someone who has died at an early age from obesity.


Andrew S. Hanks, David R. Just, Brian Wansink.  “Chocolate Milk Consequences: A Pilot Study Evaluating the Consequences of Banning Chocolate Milk in School Cafeterias” in PLOS One.  April 16, 2014.

Carla Martin.  AAAS E-119.  Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Lecture 9.  “Issues in Advertisement”.  April 1, 2015.

Mike Hughlett. “Few companies got high marks on food marketing to children:

As childhood obesity grows, so does concern over food companies’ marketing tactics”. in The Chicago Tribune.  March 10, 2010.–20100310_1_marketing-tactics-food-industry-sara-lee (Retrieved May 10, 2015)

Stephanie Soechtig.  Fed Up. 2014. (Retrieved May 10, 2015)

Susan Linn and Michele Simon.  The Dark Side of Marketing Healthy Food to Children. June 17th, 2013. (Retrieved May 10, 2015)

Center for Disease Control.

“Adult Obesity Facts” (Retrieved May 10, 2015)

“Youth Obesity Facts” (Retrieved May 10, 2015)

“The Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity” (Retrieved May 10, 2015)

“Defining Overweight and Obesity” (Retrieved May 10, 2015)

“Nutrition and the Health of Young People” (Retrieved May 10, 2015)

Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. 

“Advertising in Schools”. (Retrieved May 10, 2015)

“Marketing to Children Overview”. (Retrieved May 10, 2015)

“About that App Gap: Children, Technology and the Digital Divide”. (Retrieved May 10, 2015)

Yoni Freedhoff.  “No, Banning Chocolate Milk in Schools Didn’t Backfire:

A look at why the milk glass is actually half full”.  April 22, 2014. (Retrieved May 10, 2105)

Multimedia Sources

Frys Chocolate.  “Five Boys”. (Retrieved May 10, 2015)

Hershey’s Chocolate Bar Wrapper 1912-1926. (Retrieved May 10, 2015)

Barny.  “Keep the Adventure Going with Barny”. Aug 19, 2013. (Retrieved May 10, 2015)

Mars Corporation.  M&Ms.  M&M’S “Faint” Commercial.  Nov 19, 2013. (Retrieved May 10, 2015)

Mars Corporation.  Celebration Chocolates.  New York Festival 2012. (Retrieved May 10, 2015) (Retrieved May 10, 2015)

David Banks.  David Banks in MILK Commercial TRUMOO tru moo. Oct 14, 2009. (Retrieved May 10, 2015)

Nestle.  “Carnation Breakfast Essentials – Backpack Commercial”.

Feb 8, 2010. (Retrieved May 10, 2015)


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