Chocolate Advertisements and Children


“When we get to the store, do not ask for anything.”

As a young girl, this is what my mother would tell me in a very stern and matter of fact voice before we would go food shopping. She would hear me in the living room back at home watching the commercials on the television excitedly saying “I want that! I want that!” about every product advertised. She knew my nagging would continue in the store if she did not put a stop to it. Twenty years later and my mother is doling out the same warning to my five year old brother – except now, the product advertising does not just stop when the commercials end and the television program resumes. Today, my brother and millions of other children are bombarded with images of food products nearly everywhere they go.

From “television advertising, in-school marketing, product placements, kids clubs, the Internet, toys and products with brand logos, and youth-targeted promotions, such as cross-selling and tie-ins,” (Story & French, 2012, p.1) food and beverage companies spend an estimated $10 to $15 billion marketing to children (Eggerton, 2007). In just the first six months of 2014, Hershey’s had already spent $149.5 million on television ad placements and Reese’s had spent $86.2 million (Tadena, 2014). This marketing is not done in vain as children yield considerable consumer power not only as spenders but also as influencers and future adult buyers. This is what James McNeal (1999) describes as a three in one market. It is estimated that children spend $25 billion to $40 billion annually (Story & French; Martin, 2018) and influence up to $500 billion in purchases made by families (Martin). Additionally, as children get older they will have more disposable income as well as greater autonomy on their purchasing decisions.

Martin Marketing to Children

(Martin, Race, ethnicity, gender, and class in chocolate advertisements, 2018)

Television advertising is the primary way food and beverage companies market their products. According to the Nielsen Co. children between the ages of 2 to 5 years old watch an estimated 32 hours a week of television and children ages 6 to 8 spend 28 hours per week in front of the TV (McDonough, 2009). With all this television watching children are barraged with commercials. Holt, Ippolito, Desrochers, and Kelley (2007) found that children in 2004 were exposed to over 25,000 commercials and over half of the advertisements were promoting a food product. In a study done on food advertisements seen by children researchers found that, “children’s networks had the highest percentage of food-related commercials,” (Bell, Cassady, Culp, & Alcalay, 2009) and the majority of these commercials were for unhealthy foods. Compared to other networks, the children’s programming featured 76% more food commercials – more specifically, “7.7 food commercials per hour appeared in programming on the children’s networks, which is approximately 1 food commercial every 8 minutes,” (Bell et al., 2009). This astounding frequency makes children extremely vulnerable to the marketing ploys used by the food companies.

One way in which people have tried to combat the over saturation of unhealthy food advertisements targeted to children is with the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI). Established in 2007, the CFBAI is a self-regulation program that encourages its participants to advertise more nutritious food and healthier lifestyles to children under the age of 12 (CFBAI and CARU Fact Sheet, 2012). Companies who have signed up to be in this initiative are The Hershey Company, Mars. Inc., Nestle Global, and Ferrero USA Inc. (CFBAI Participating Companies, 2018). From participating in this program these companies have promised to not promote their candy directly to children. However, in a study examining how much candy advertising was being seen by children researchers discovered children viewed 485 candy advertisements in 2011, a 74% increase from the number of advertisements viewed in 2008. The researchers found that 65% of the advertisements in 2011, “were for brands that CFBAI companies pledged they would not include in child-directed advertising,” (Harris, LoDolce, Dembek, & Schwartz, 2015, p.589). Mars, Hershey, and Nestle were some of the CFBAI companies that had a 152% increase in ads from 2008 to 2011. Despite these companies’ promises to self-regulate their advertisements, children are still being overexposed to unhealthy food commercials.

The United States is not the only country dealing with unhealthy advertisements marketed toward children. A content analysis of 229 Iranian food commercials shown during children’s programming mostly featured unhealthy food such as chocolate, ice cream, and cookies (Amini, Omidvar, Yeatman, Shariat-Jafari, Eslami-Amirabadi, & Zahedirad, 2014). Researchers in Melbourne, Australia found a positive correlation between the amount of TV commercials a child watches and their preference for junk food as well as the amount of junk food they eat (Dixon, Scully, Wakefield, White, Crawford, 2007). In India, Rathod and Parmar (2012) looked at the influence of Indian advertisements targeted to children. The children were very familiar with chocolate advertisements and stated that Cadbury and Five Stars were their favorite chocolate brands. The researchers stated that children often asked their parents to buy confectionary products for them after viewing the products’ commercial. Mexico banned the broadcasting of commercials featuring chocolate, soda, and candy during children’s movies in theaters as well as during children’s television shows in 2014. It was estimated that over 10,000 commercials would be affected by the new rule. However, a week after this regulation went into effect Mexico’s Federal Commission for the Protection Against Sanitary Risk claimed ads for Hershey’s, Nesquik, and Nestle were not compliant (Pekic, 2014). Some of the ads that the authorities singled out for not following the regulation were promoting chocolate foods – “chocolate-flavored Nesquik Duo cereals…Hershey’s chocolate flavored milk and Holanda chocolate-topped vanilla ice cream products,” (Pekic, 2014).

Emotional appeal is a widely used tactic in advertising to children. In their marketing, companies associate their products with positive emotions that are desirable to children. Page and Brewster (2007) examined product appeals in food advertisements for children in the United States and found that the most popular appeals used by companies were fun/happiness, fantasy/imagination, social enhancement/peer acceptance, and coolness/hipness. In Belgium, 46.3% of the children involved in De Pelsmaker, Schouteten, and Gellynck’s study (2013) associated Cécémel, a popular chocolate milk brand, with happiness, “cozy, desire, enjoyment and pleasure,” (p. 283).

Emotional appeal is seen throughout Hersheypark where, since 1907, Hershey Co. has welcomed families from all over the world to forge memories and experience fun in a way that goes beyond simply eating their chocolate bars. From its roller coasters, zoo, and official hotels Hersheypark is associated with adventure, family, excitement, and happiness. I remember going to Hersheypark as a young girl and staying in one of their hotels. The wallpaper was designed with illustrations of tiny chocolate bars and chocolate was available everywhere. I thought it was the coolest thing and still to this day when I think about Hersheypark I am reminded of the fun I had there with my family.

Another tactic in which companies attract children to their products is through their use of brand mascots. Mascots and cartoon characters are an easy way for children to identify products. Companies create brand mascots in the hopes of developing an emotional relationship with the young child consumer who is, “cognitively immature and vulnerable to targeted marketing because of their limited ability to differentiate between facts and persuasive marketing communications,” (Kraak & Story, 2014, p.108). Harkening back to McNeil’s three in one description of child consumers these mascots are also used to create brand loyalty with the child who will eventually grow into an adult consumer. Oftentimes, the mascots are depicted in fun and happy situations and are associated with a catchy phrase (Kraak & Story, 2014) which can help foster, “market nostalgia through transgenerational, parent-child interactions that generate…fun emotional appeals…towards company brands and products,” (Kraak & Story, 2014, p.110). The relationships that the children form with the mascots have great influence on their dietary choices. Kraak and Story examined the influence of brand mascots on children’s diet and found that children preferred their food to have a character associated with it than no character. The researchers also found that when unhealthy food and fruits or vegetables were branded with the same familiar character, the children favored the unhealthy snacks. Furthermore, children were more likely to request chocolate over fruit if there was a familiar media character associated with it.

Sonny the Cuckoo Bird was introduced in 1962 to promote General Mills’ cereal Cocoa Puffs. In the 56 years Sonny has been on television, he simply cannot resist the cereal made with “real Hershey’s cocoa”. Try as he might to keep his mind off the cereal he is always pulled back in and by the end of the commercials has gone manic off of the Puffs’ delicious chocolatey flavor. In one commercial, Sonny even goes so far as to lock his box of Cocoa Puffs in a safe but the cereal manages to find him everywhere he goes – the chocolate deliciousness is inescapable. Sonny’s love for the cereal is contagious. In many of the commercials, he is surrounded by children who are just as crazy about Cocoa Puffs as he is. In some instances the children do not think Cocoa Puffs are as good as Sonny claims they are until they get a taste of it for themselves.

In the Cocoa Puffs commercials, chocolate is depicted as a food so good it will make the person eating it go crazy. One bite of the cereal and Sonny and the Cocoa Puffs children are out of control with happiness. Many of the commercials are animated cartoons and have a very short storyline featuring Sonny either trying to avoid the cereal, persuading children to eat it, or on an adventure to find the cereal. However, when it comes time for the narrator to talk about the cereal it switches from animation to real life images. The viewers shortly leave the cartoon story. There is usually an image of some type of chocolate looking vortex followed by a close up shot of the Cocoa Puffs in a bowl of chocolate milk. The shot is against a backdrop of rich creamy chocolate. The entire scene is meant to depict chocolate.

Like Sonny, the children go crazy over the “chocolatey taste you go cuckoo for”. Sonny’s slogan, “I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!” is repeated many times throughout the commercial by him and the Cocoa Puffs children. Sonny’s energetic demeanor and propensity to be in fun situations make him a likeable character to children consumers. By inserting children cartoon characters into the Cocoa Puffs commercials, the children viewers can relate to them. Furthermore, children are likely to believe the commercial’s claim that Cocoa Puffs are a part of a nutritional and well-balanced breakfast. In nearly every Cocoa Puffs commercial I viewed there was an image of the cereal alongside a glass of milk, a glass of orange juice, and a plate of toast as the narrator states Cocoa Puffs is “the chocolatey part of this good breakfast”.

Sonny the Cuckoo Bird is not the only mascot associated with chocolate breakfast. The Nesquik Bunny was introduced in 1973 and is used in commercials to promote Nesquik’s chocolate milk as well as its cereal. Like Cocoa Puffs, Nesquik cereal is touted as being delicious because of its chocolate flavor and how it turns regular milk into chocolate milk. The Nesquik Bunny also claims that the cereal is, “the chocolatey part of this good breakfast” as the bowl of cereal is shown alongside a glass of milk, a muffin, and an orange. This mascot, too, is energetic and happy – easy for the children viewers to relate to him.

Along with emotional appeal and brand mascots, logo recognition is another way companies capture children’s attention. Logo recognition increases with age and are used to build “product recognition and brand awareness in young children,” (Page & Brewster, 2007, p. 336). I am able to see the effect of brand recognition with my five year old brother. Every morning he drinks a glass of chocolate milk made with Hershey’s chocolate syrup. My brother is very particular about his chocolate milk and if it is not made the way he enjoys he will not drink it. Despite not being fully comprehensive with reading yet if he notices that the chocolate syrup does not have the Hershey’s logo on it he automatically does not like the chocolate milk.

Children are vulnerable to the marketing tactics used by food and beverage companies. These companies have developed a number of ways to appeal to the innocent minds of children and these ways are working. By marketing their products as child-friendly, children and parents are more likely to fall for the companies’ traps. In this already overly media-saturated environment children are living in, people need to be made aware of the ways food companies bombard children. The over-saturation likely will not stop but if people are aware of companies’ tactics, hopefully, their effects will have less of an impact.



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