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Everyone is bombarded with thousands of marketing messages each day, but adults learn to ignore most of them. Children have not built such defenses, leaving them particularly impressionable, especially to advertising that promotes food that tastes good.

The United States places few restrictions on marketing junk food to children, especially compared with Europe, where no such advertisements may run on children’s television channels. The most prolific junk food marketers include sugary cereals—like Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Cocoa Puffs, or Trix. In most cases, an animated character convinces young viewers that “Trix are for kids” or that they should be “Coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs.” Every year, children between the ages of 2 and 5 years see an average of 500 cereal ads, designed just for them.

Cereal companies also have developed Internet sites with videogames that attract 750,000 visitors under the age of 18 years each month. Each session last an average of 24 minutes, all of them filled with cereal-specific features, characters, and promotions.

Realizing that one-third of U.S. children are overweight or obese, the food industry responded with a “Smart Choice” label, adding a white checkmark symbol to food that follows certain guidelines. But the checkmark shows up on ice cream, mayonnaise, and cereal, even those with up to 12 grams of sugar per serving. Companies might decrease the calories, fat, and sugar and increase the fiber and vitamins in their products, but the results are far from healthy.

Unfortunately, there is little incentive for them to change their products significantly. By adding vitamins or decreasing some sugar content, they can get the checkmark, even if their product remains full of fat and calories. Cinnamon Toast Crunch earned a checkmark because it is a “Good source of Calcium and Vitamin D,” and according to the CEO of Kellogg’s, 12 grams of sugar is only 50 calories, so it can’t be that bad.

Discussion Questions:

1.Is it ethical to market junk food to children?

Bonnie Rochman, “Sweet Spot: How Sugary-Cereal Makers Target Kids,” Time, November, 2009.