Goodbye Toucan Sam?! Our Top 3 reasons for Stopping Marketing to Children

Thanks to for allowing us to download and share this great infographic! 

Thanks to for allowing us to download and share this great infographic! 

It has been a long time since I've watched children's specific TV programming, but when my absolute favourite holiday movie, Home Alone was on YTV this past weekend, I couldn't resist. 

Being a "kids channel", I was astounded with the number of commercials. Regardless of the fact that the kids aren't the ones opening their pocket books at the stores or shopping online (I hope), marketers sure know how to make sure their product is at the top of everyone's Christmas wish lists. But the commercials weren't just for toys. The number of food advertisements were equal to that of toys. And that ladies and gentleman, is a major problem. Read on to find out why...

1. Childhood overweight and obesity is a major public health concern

Currently in Canada, 30 percent of children aged two to seventeen years suffer from overweight or obesity [1,2]. Childhood obesity is associated with many adverse health outcomes including heart disease, diabetes, as well as obesity and higher morbidity in adulthood [3,4]. In fact, these related disease outcomes are associated for one in five deaths in developed countries such as Canada [5].  

As a dietitian, I know that the earlier we can intervene, during the time that healthy behaviours are being formed, the more likely we are able to prevent or halt excess weight gain from taking hold. The behaviours I am referring to here that have been shown to be particularly important when thinking about child weight include decreased physical activity, increased sedentary activity and poor sleep and dietary habits (including the consumption of sugar sweetened beverages). If you have ever tried to change a behaviour as an adult, you know how hard it can be-- but behaviours that are learned during childhood (by age 5 or 6) become engrained, so if we focus on healthy behaviours during the early years, we can potentially ward off the challenge of changing as adults!  

Obesity is an outcome that is influenced by many different factors, including your genetics, environment and the behaviours you engage in. While it is hard (*impossible) to change our genetics, there is are many things that we can do to modify the behaviours that we engage in. Of course, it is much easier to modify our behaviours when the environment that we are in is also supportive of these changes. Which brings me to my next point...

2. Children spend a significant amount of time in front of the TV and other screens

It is estimated that only 24 percent of children aged five to seventeen meet the Canadian Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines recommendation of no more than two hours of recreational screen time per day [6]. This means that children are spending a significant portion of their days outside of school in front of a TV, computer, iPad, or other gaming device.

The more screen time a child has, the more likely they are to gain weight [7]. Why is this you ask? Well, there are a few ideas including, too much sitting, increased snacking while in front of screens and exposure to food ads.  In fact, it is estimated that Canadian children are exposed to 20 000 advertisements per year [7]. If the TV they are watching is anything like my recent experience with the advertisements on YTV, that is a lot of food advertising. And food advertisements aren't limited to TV. Oh no...they are on youtube, the side bars of online games...the exposure is endless!

We know that the food advertised to children play directly into their food choices, preferences and eating habits [8]. This wouldn't be a problem if the food advertised to them was healthy. But it isn't. In fact, 90 percent of the food advertised to children is high in salt, fat, sugar and calories [8]. This feeds back into poor dietary intake and further increases the risk of excess weight gain. 

To make matters worse, kids don't have the ability to understand the marketing tactics being used to influence them. Before the age of five, they can't tell the difference between an ad and the actual show, and while by the age of 10 or 12, kids know that commercials and ads are designed to sell products, they are not able to be critical of the messages. And marketers are tricky- who doesn't love Toucan Sam, Tony the Tiger, Dora's face on a juice box or Micheal Phelps on the side of a sugary cereal box?! 

I hope you are reading this and thinking about how to tackle this problem. You might think, okay, let's just educate kids about advertising. This is called media literacy. While research has shown, that kids as young as 5 can be taught about advertising and the persuasive techniques used, there is no real evidence to suggest that understanding persuasive intent modifies preferences and behaviours [9]. And so the concern about these unhealthy advertisements continues. 

The second thing that often comes to people's minds is....Parenting! But as you might have guessed, this brings me to my final point about why food marketing to children is a huge problem...

3. "Pester Power" is real

Sure, parents are the gatekeepers in young children's lives and we know that parents influence the behaviours young children engage in through modelling. However, I am not sure that it is feasible or appropriate to expect parents to be the sole managers of this, especially when screens play such a big role in our society. Further, with many families having working parents, the TV (or other screen) acts as a babysitter for latchkey kids after school. In some of my own research, we also found that parents who are stressed are less likely to limit the amount of TV their children watch [10]. By having a national policy stopping marketing to children, we may relieve some parenting stress and blame. 

Having such a policy would make parenting surrounding TV and healthy eating much easier. Because "pester power" is REAL! When children are influenced by an ad, they nag their parents to buy the food. And if you've been to the grocery store lately, you'll have noticed that it doesn't get any easier there. All of the "kids" food is right at the eye level of the shopping cart seat. Let's just push things over the edge here why don't we. No surprise as to why you see so many kids having a good ol' temper- tantrum in the cereal aisle. And then parents are forced with a lose-lose situation; buy the cereal to get the kid to be quiet or succumb to being judged by everyone else in the store while they cart around their screaming child. We need to stop blaming parents, because parenting is no easy gig! 

Let's make things easier, by creating an environment that is actually supportive of parents promoting healthy behaviours among their young children! And I'm not the only one who thinks so...

In March 2016, the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs Science and Technology released a report on obesity in Canada entitled, Obesity in Canada: A Whole-of-Society Approach for a Healthier Canada [11]. The document provides a blueprint outlining the multifactorial behaviours and influences associated with obesity in Canada. Among the many suggestions, stopping marketing to children was highlighted as a highly promising avenue with which to target many of the behaviours that are known to be associated with excess weight gain among children, such as increased sedentary behaviour, screen time and poor dietary habits. The World Health Organization and other public health associations have also raised concern that many of the advertisements directed at children promote unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles [8]. 

What can you do to help?! 

The good news is that there is some action at the government level towards having a national policy to stop such marketing. There are actually two different bills being presented, one in the Senate (Bill S-228) and one in the House of Commons (Bill C-313). But in order to have one of these bills passed into law, we all need to help! 

Read up, spread the word, and write a letter to your local MP!

If you are interested, read more here: Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition

The time to act is now. Our children are our future and a national policy to stop marketing to children has the potential to make great strides in creating a healthy environment for them to grow up in. 

Thanks for reading! 



Here are the facts: 

  1. Shields M., & Tremblay M. S. (2010). Canadian childhood obesity estimates based on WHO, IOTF and CDC cut-points. Int J Pediatr Obes, 5(3): 265-273.                                                

  2. Roberts K, Shields M, de Groh M, et al. (2012) Overweight and obesity in children and adolescents: results from the 2009 to 2011 Canadian Health Measures Survey. Ottawa: Statistics Canada. URL: Accessed 17 November 2016.

  3. Dietz W. (1998). Health consequences of obesity in youth: Childhood predictors of adult disease. Pediatrics, 101: 518—525.

  4. Freedman DS, Mei Z, Srinivasan SR, Berenson GS, & Dietz WH. (2007). Cardiovascular risk factors and excess adiposity among overweight children and adolescents: The Bogalusa Heart Study. J Pediatr;150 (1):12—17. e2.

  5. Lubetkin EI, & Jia H (2009). Health-related quality of life, quality-adjusted life years, and quality-adjusted life expectancy in New York City from 1995 to 2006. Journal of urban health: bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 86 (4): 551-61. 

  6. Statistics Canada. (2015). Directly measured physical activity of children and youth, 2012 and 2013. Ottawa: Statistics Canada. URL: Accessed 17 November 2016. 

  7. Psychosocial Paediatrics Committee, Canadian Paediatric Society. (2003). Impact of media use on children and youth [position statement]. Paediatrics and Child Health, 8(5):301-306. 

  8. World Health Organization. (2016). Tackling food marketing to children in a digital world: trans-disciplinary perspectives. URL: Accessed 17 November, 2016. 

  9. Chernin, A (2008). The Effects of Food Marketing on Children's Preferences: Testing the moderating roles of age and gender. Annals of the AAPS, 615 (1): 101-118.  

  10. Walton K, Randall Simpson J, Darlington G & Haines J. Parenting Stress: a crosssectional analysis of associations with childhood obesity, physical activity and TV viewing. BMC Pediatrics. 2014;14: 244. doi: 10.1186/1471-2431-14-244.

  11. The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.(2016). Obesity in Canada: A Whole-of-Society Approach for a Healthier Canada. Ottawa: Parliament of Canada. URL: Accessed 17 November 2016.