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Rapper Travis Scott signed a sponsorship deal with McDonald’s this past fall. When a celebrity endorses a product, fans often buy it.

Jerritt Clark, Courtesy of McDonald’s

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.6, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.6, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.4, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Culture • Production, Distribution, and Consumption • Science, Technology, and Society

SPOTLIGHT

Media Literacy

Are Junk Food Ads Targeting You?

(Hint: They are! Here’s how you can avoid being tricked.)

As You Read, Think About: How do food and drink companies try to get kids to buy their products?

Eight teens were recently invited to a restaurant in the United Kingdom (U.K.) as part of a filmed experiment. Each teen was handed a sealed envelope and a menu with more than 50 items. Then they were asked to order one item off the menu.

The teens all picked the same thing: the restaurant’s “triple dipped chicken.” After receiving their meals, the teens opened their envelopes and each pulled out a piece of paper. They were in shock: The words triple dipped chicken were written on it. The producers of the film had correctly predicted what each teen would order.

How? By using the same techniques junk food companies employ to market their products. Leading up to the teens’ visit, the producers had bombarded them with ads for the fried chicken dish—on Instagram, in cabs, and on posters along the way to the restaurant (see photos, below). Even though the teens said that they hadn’t noticed the ads, it was clear the marketing had influenced their decisions.

Eight teens were recently invited to a restaurant in the United Kingdom (U.K.). They were part of a filmed experiment. Each teen was handed a sealed envelope. Each was also given a menu with more than 50 items. Then each teen was asked to order one thing from that menu.

The teens all picked same thing: the “triple dipped chicken.” After getting their meals, they opened their envelopes. Each pulled out a piece of paper. They were shocked. It had the words triple dipped chicken on it. The film’s producers had correctly predicted what each teen would order.

How? By using the same techniques junk food companies use to market their products. Before the teens arrived, the producers had bombarded them with ads for the fried chicken dish. The ads were on Instagram and in cabs. Ads were also on posters on the way to the restaurant (see photos, below). The teens said that they had not noticed the ads. But it was clear the marketing had influenced their decisions.

BiteBack2030

The ads you see on your way to a restaurant may influence what you order.

The experiment was run by Bite Back 2030, a U.K.-based nonprofit, to draw attention to the methods junk food companies use to target young people. It shows just how powerful such marketing is, says James Toop, the head of the organization, which is working to make the food industry healthier.

“What surprised the young people the most is how subliminal it was,” Toop says. “They didn’t even know this [meal] existed. We had only marketed it to them for a few days, and yet they all picked it.”

The experiment was run by Bite Back 2030. That is a U.K.-based nonprofit. The goal was to highlight the ways that junk food companies target young people. It shows how powerful such marketing is, says James Toop, who heads Bite Back 2030. The organization is working to make the food industry healthier.

“What surprised the young people the most is how subliminal it was,” Toop says. “They didn’t even know this [meal] existed. We had only marketed it to them for a few days, and yet they all picked it.”

Ad Overload

Whether scrolling through Instagram or watching videos on YouTube, you probably see a lot of ads for junk food.

There’s a reason for that. Food and beverage companies spent $13.4 billion on advertising in the United States in 2017, according to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. About 80 percent of those ads were for fast food, sugary drinks, candy, and unhealthy snacks.

Kids and teens are the targets of many of those ads. Why? Because companies are trying to build brand loyalty. The earlier they get you to love their products, the more likely you are to continue buying them throughout your lifetime.

“Young people are much more impressionable” than adults, Toop says. “And they’re much more targetable with their phones.”

Indeed, social media has made junk food advertising even more effective—and more difficult to spot (see “Selling With Cell Phones,” below). Companies pay people with a lot of followers to rave about certain products in their posts. Everyday users end up marketing products too—just by liking and sharing posts with their friends and followers. 

You probably see many ads for junk food when you scroll through Instagram or watch YouTube videos.

There is a reason for that. Food and beverage companies spent $13.4 billion on ads in the United States in 2017. That is according to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. About 80 percent of those ads were for fast food, sugary drinks, candy, and unhealthy snacks.

Kids and teens are the targets of many of those ads. Why? Because companies are trying to build brand loyalty. They want you to start loving their products at a young age. Then you are more likely to keep buying them throughout your life.

“Young people are much more impressionable” than adults, Toop says. “And they’re much more targetable with their phones.”

Indeed, social media has made junk food advertising more effective. It also has made ads harder to spot (see “Selling With Cell Phones,” below). Companies pay people who have a lot of followers to praise products in their posts. But everyday users end up marketing products too. They do so just by liking and sharing posts with friends and followers.

Selling With Cell Phones

Companies know the best way to reach teens is through their phones. Here’s how.

Mountain Dew via Instagram

#Hashtag Campaigns
Food companies try to get their ads to go viral by posting fun hashtags. When you share these hashtags, you’re providing them with free advertising.

#Hashtag Campaigns
Food companies try to get their ads to go viral by posting fun hashtags. When you share these hashtags, you’re providing them with free advertising.

Wendy’s

Apps & Games 
Many fast-food restaurants use apps to track users and notify them when they are near a restaurant. Some food companies also create their own mobile games that are really ads. 

Apps & Games 
Many fast-food restaurants use apps to track users and notify them when they are near a restaurant. Some food companies also create their own mobile games that are really ads. 

Charli D’Amelio via Instagram

Endorsements
Businesses often pay influencers to promote products on their personal social media pages. That’s because advertisers know many teens want to copy their favorite stars.

Endorsements
Businesses often pay influencers to promote products on their personal social media pages. That’s because advertisers know many teens want to copy their favorite stars.

Source: The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Source: The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Goodbye Ads & Mascots?

Some countries have already taken action to limit the number of junk food ads young people see. In the South American nation of Chile, for example, ads for unhealthy foods and drinks are banned from appearing on TV before 10 p.m. Kid-friendly cartoon mascots, such as Cheetos’ Chester Cheetah, are prohibited as well. 

But no such laws exist in the U.S. Many Americans believe that banning junk food ads denies people the opportunity to make their own choices. Walter Olson of the Cato Institute, a libertarian organization in Washington, D.C., says bans on ads are “a form of censorship.”

Ultimately, many experts say, we’re our own best defense against marketing. Christopher Bryan, a behavioral science professor at the University of Chicago in Illinois, says teens should be aware that these ads are trying to manipulate them. 

“When you see an ad and you recognize that clearly this is portraying something you know isn’t healthy as really appealing,” he says, “remember that the people making the ads have that goal.”

Some countries set limits for how many junk food ads young people see. One example is the South American nation of Chile. There, ads for unhealthy foods and drinks are banned from appearing on TV before 10 p.m. Also banned are kid-friendly cartoon mascots, such as Cheetos’ Chester Cheetah.

But no such laws exist in the U.S. Many Americans believe that banning junk food ads denies people the chance to make their own choices. Walter Olson of the Cato Institute, a libertarian organization in Washington, D.C., says bans on ads are “a form of censorship.”

In the end, many experts say, we are our own best defense against marketing. Christopher Bryan is a behavioral science professor at the University of Chicago in Illinois. He says teens should be aware that these ads are trying to manipulate them.

“When you see an ad and you recognize that clearly this is portraying something you know isn’t healthy as really appealing,” he says, “remember that the people making the ads have that goal.”

Write About It! Find an ad for junk food. Where did you find it? Who is it targeting? How does it try to get people to buy the product? Use details from this article to support your analysis of the ad.

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