Food advertising to children

A critical evaluation of public, governmental and corporate responsibilities in Germany

Bachelor Thesis, 2012

45 Pages, Grade: 1,1



List of figures

List of appendices

1. Introduction

2. The status quo of food advertising to children in Germany
2.1 Advertising to children as reflected by theoretical and empirical research
2.1.1 Ethical considerations
2.1.2 Food advertising to children and its potential effects
2.1.3 Influences on advertising’s effects on children
2.2 Advertising regulation
2.2.1 Legal regulation
2.2.2 Self-disciplinary regulation

3. Children’s responses to food advertising and the parental influence
3.1 Research questions
3.2 Design and implementation of research
3.3 Findings
3.3.1 Effects of persuasive tactics on advertising-literate children
3.3.2 Children’s assumptions about the nutritional value of non-core food
3.3.3 Parents’ attitudes towards child-directed food adver- tising and their influence on children’s responses
3.4 Limitations of research design

4. An approach towards the responsible use and creation of food advertising to children
4.1 Practical implications of research findings
4.2 Mission Statement: „Initiative für gesunden Umgang mit Lebensmittelwerbung für Kinder“

5. Conclusions for future research

List of references

Appendices A and B


Cover picture Copyright Anna Lena Hallmann, 2012

Fig. 1 Legal enactments that concern children’s food advertising in Germany…. 11

Fig. 2 Persuasive tactics: Capri Sonne TV commercial….…. 17

Fig. 3 Persuasive tactics: Nesquik Knusperfrühstück TV commercial…. 17

Fig. 4 Persuasive tactics: Ferdi Fuchs Mini Würstchen TV commercial. 18

Fig. 5 Nutritional information: Capri Sonne, Nesquik Knusperfrühstück and Ferdi Fuchs Mini Würstchen


Appendix A Code of conduct for children’s advertising by the Deutscher Werberat…. 40

Appendix B Web links to the discussed TV commercials


There are times when you intuitively feel that something is going ter­ribly wrong: […] Multicoloured packaging screaming for attention – in the cereal shelf, in merely endless rows of confectionary, even in the dairy section and the meat counter. The products are often not even identifiable as food because they are hidden behind pictures, dazzling colours, letterings, drawings, logos [.] In such moments, you ask yourself what assumptions children may have about food, what value they assign to it, what they know about food production and quality features, what type of food they will consume by the time they are adults. And you suspect that the answers will not be pleasant.

Thilo Bode, founder and executive director of Foodwatch e.V., 2012 [1]

The introductory words, as given in a recent report on the food industry (Foodwatch, 2012, p.4), reflect longstanding concerns about child-directed food marketing. Ever since marketers began targeting children, public and academia have found themselves in a heated discussion about the topic (Preston, 2004). The debate on children’s advertising ranges from whether it is ethical to target children in the first place (Bakir and Vitell, 2010), to the criticism of specific persuasive tac­tics and misguiding claims (Rozendaal, Buijzen and Valkenburg, 2011). Most frequently, the discussion has been centred on child-directed advertising for food and beverages. The reason why food advertising presents such a sensitive area is because it is suspected to contribute to poor dietary habits (Yu, 2011, pp.87-88). With increasing levels of childhood obesity, researchers around the globe have started investigating advertising’s contribution to this trend (Kelly et al., 2010).

Foodwatch’s recent report on child-directed food marketing and the subsequent discus­sion between consumer activists and the industry illustrate the topic’s substantial relevance in the German market. In the report, Foodwatch blames the food indus­try for primarily marketing food and beverages that that are high in fat, sugar and salt (Foodwatch, 2012, p.13). In order to promote such products, Foodwatch argues, the industry draws on manipulative advertising techniques. More pre­cisely, food advertising is accused of deceiving parents and seducing children to consume “unhealthy” food, which ultimately leads to child obesity (Foodwatch, 2012, p.8). The report claims that, while the industry rejects taking responsibility, the German legislation equally fails to enforce consumer protection. As Foodwatch concludes, in the food market, the average German consumer largely stands without defence and rights.

On the other side of the discussion, the food industry considers Foodwatch’s criti­cism as inappropriate. As the Zentralverband der Deutschen Werbewirtschaft e.V. (Central Association of the German Advertising Industry; ZAW) argues, child obesity is not solely a problem of food promotion. Instead, multiple factors, such as a deficit in physical activity as well as the overall socio-economic environment con­tribute to weight increase (ZAW, 2012). The industry further notes that the classi­fication of food as “unhealthy” is illegitimate. In response to the alleged lack of consumer rights, the ZAW points to several legal enactments that do serve con­sumer protection. Moreover, it emphasises the work of the industry’s self-regula­tory body, the Deutscher Werberat (German Council of Advertising), which has established a voluntary code of conduct to guide the creation of children’s adver­tising (ZAW, 2012).

The contrast between the arguments of the two parties reflects a large disagree­ment about the responsibility and regulation of food advertising to children. Not least, such disagreement is the result of a significant lack of scientific evidence for the causes and effects with regards to such advertising. As long as such research gaps exist, the resulting conflict works to the disfavour of children and concerned parents, as well as the advertising profession, which continuously suffers from image degradation (Drumwright and Murphy, 2009).

Taking this dilemma into consideration, the work in hand aims to investigate some of the research gaps in order to advance a solution of the conflict. More spe­cifically, this paper focuses on researching the actual effects of food advertising on children in Germany, and the potential influencing factors on those effects. For that purpose, the author dedicates the second chapter of this study to the examina­tion of the status quo of child-directed food advertising in Germany by drawing on the existing body of theoretical and empirical research. This examination de­mands insights from various fields of research, such as philosophy, politics and developmental psychology. Moreover, the status quo investigates the alleged lack of consumers’ rights by critically evaluating the current legal and self-disciplinary instruments of advertising regulation in Germany.

Complementary to the examination of the status quo, this paper collects primary data through parent and child interviews. The qualitative data, which is presented in chapter three, is aimed to add to a more detailed understanding of children’s responses to food advertising. More precisely, the interviews research children’s understanding of persuasive techniques, and their assumptions about the nutri­tional content of advertised food. Since the existing research indicates that parents may have an influence on such responses (Carlson, Laczniak and Wertley, 2011), the interviews also focus on obtaining insights on parents’ attitudes towards child-directed advertising and their actual influence on children’s responses.

While this paper leads to the conclusion that persuasive tactics and misguiding claims in food advertising can have potentially harmful effects on children, the primary and secondary data collection also strongly points towards how such harm may be effectively prevented and counteracted.

In chapter four, those findings are summarised and discussed with regards to their implications for practice. For that purpose, the author recommends the foundation of an independent agency, the “Initiative für den gesunden Umgang mit Lebensmittelwerbung für Kinder” (“Initiative for the responsible use and creation of food advertising to children”), which aims to use this paper’s findings to pro­tect children from the harmful effects of food advertising. In order to describe the initiative’s purpose and tasks in detail, chapter four also includes a mission state­ment of the “Initiative für den gesunden Umgang mit Lebensmittelwerbung für Kinder”.

In chapter five, the author critically evaluates her research and makes suggestions on how future research may advance the findings provided in this paper.


2.1 Advertising to children as reflected by theoretical and empirical research

2.1.1 Ethical considerations

Since the initial references in the late 1950s, research on advertising to children has grown in both scope and depth. As a review of theoretical and empirical research shows, the subject demands insights from various fields of study, in­cluding law, politics, paediatrics and developmental psychology. However, most fundamentally, the debate on children’s advertising is rooted in a debate on advertising ethics (Turk, 1979; Preston, 2004; Livingstone, 2009). According to Cunningham (1999, p.500), advertising ethics is defined as a set of values that determine “what is right or good in the conduct of the advertising function” and “it is concerned with questions of what ought to be done”.

In the discussion about children’s advertising, two different sets of ethics collide: the ethical values of the advertising industry versus the values of children’s advocates (Turk, 1979). Within this scenario, the advertising industry is repre­sented by advertisers, agencies and the media (Murphy, 1998, p.318). Children’s advocates, on the other hand, include governmental agencies, consumer activists and parents. Because of the conflict’s entanglement with ethics, emotional involvement from both sides has often complicated an objective examination of children’s advertising (Turk, 1979, p.4).

The industry’s behaviour is assumed to be mainly driven by economic welfare (Robin, 2009, p.141), and hence various researchers have questioned the ethicality of the advertising business. Early on in the discussion on advertising ethics, the profession has been condemned as a manipulative tool that creates demand with the purpose of absorbing increased production (Galbraith, 1958). Later, it has been accused of “polluting” the “psychological and social ecology” in a way that “raises moral alarm” (Pollay, 1986, p.19). Most recently, anti-capitalistic consumer activists have labelled advertising as sheer “brain damage” (Adbusters, 2007).

In response to the criticism, many authors have pointed to the informational, social and cultural values that advertising offers. As Caccamo (2009, p.302) argues, advertising presents a form of social communication which is vital to the human development. Moreover, advertising is assumed to play a significant role in the economic socialisation of consumers, i.e. in their education on how to par­ticipate in the current market system (Ward, 1974). As Preston (2004, p.364) explains, advertising informs consumers about “the ways of consumption”, which is in turn “inevitable and necessary given the economic system”. Kirkpatrick (1986, p.43) even sees advertising as a basis for human survival because it stimulates “rational selfishness” and independent thinking. He also claims that it cannot be immoral to pursue one’s own selfish interests, and hence discharges advertising of its moral responsibility. However, Kirkpatrick’s argument certainly presents an extreme.

A dominant tenor in philosophy agrees that behaviour is unethical if its outcome serves one party, but harms another (McGann, 1986). This argument is ever more supported when vulnerable groups, such as children, are concerned (Preston, 2004). As Livingstone (2009) suggests, advertising to children is harmful, i.e. unethical, under two conditions: firstly, if the child is unaware of the persuasive character of the advertisement, and secondly, if the persuasion goes against the child’s interest. This literature review will give examples from research that demonstrate to what extend child-directed advertising meets Livingstone’s criteria and why food advertising is often in the centre of this discussion.

2.1.2 Food advertising to children and its potential effects

With increasing buying power and significant influence on the family’s purchase decisions, children have inevitably become a lucrative target market for advertisers. The children’s market is usually defined by children from ages six to thirteen (Medienpädagogischer Forschungsverbund Südwest, 2011). In Germany, the buying power of this age group currently totals € 3.2 billion (Egmont Ehapa Verlag, 2012). Moreover, empirical studies provide evidence that children influ­ence their parents’ purchase decisions. Especially in-store, children have been found to successfully enforce their product requests (Ebster and Wagner, 2009). While parents are often unaware of the subtle influence of their children, marketers spend large budgets on child-directed advertising (Bakir and Vittel, 2009). Most commonly, such child-directed advertising is defined by the following circumstances: the advertisement is channelled through media which is rated for children (LeBlanc Wicks, Warren, Fosu and Wicks, 2009), and the advertisement features children using or consuming the product (Roberts and Pettrigrew, 2007).

Despite the increasing use of online and mobile media, a recent study on children’s media use patterns reports that television remains the most important medium to reach children (Medienpädagogischer Forschungsverbund Südwest, 2011). The study further notes that, on average, both girls and boys watch TV for nearly 100 minutes per day. Whereas children’s programmes from public-law broadcasters, such as the kids’ channel KiKA, are free of ads, private broadcasters are authorised to show twelve minutes of advertising per hour (Landeszentrale für Medien und Kommunikation, 2012). Based on their average TV consumption, this implies that children are exposed to up to 75 TV advertisements in a day.

Several studies have found that food is the most advertised product in children’s programmes, accounting for 70% of the total number of advertisements (Kelly et al., 2010). Findings also include that the majority of food advertisements feature non-core food products, such as cereals, chocolate, confectionary, and carbonated beverages (Dibb, 1996). According to dietary guidelines, products are categorised as non-core if they are “relatively high in undesirable nutrients, including fat and sodium, or energy” (Kelly et al., 2010, p.1731). In fact, it is suggested that the food range presented in advertising stands in direct opposition to nutritional recommendations given by health care experts (Zuppa, Morton and Mehta, 2003; Foodwatch, 2012). In Germany, 87% of all TV food advertisements in children’s programmes are for non-core food products (Kelly et al., 2010, p.1731).

Due to the inflated promotion of non-core food and beverages, advertising has been named one of the major contributors to increasing levels of childhood obesity (WHO, 2006). Increasing weight among children also presents a problem in Germany, where an estimated 15% of children and adolescents is categorised as overweight, and 6.3% as obese (Robert Koch Institut, 2008, p.41). Besides excessively promoting non-core food, advertising has been accused of disregarding healthy eating practices and giving misleading information on the nutritional value of food. According to Roberts and Pettigrew (2007), most TV commercials feature snacking situations or solitary eating, rather than family meals. Since family meals are considered to promote a more balanced nutrition (American Dietetic Association, 2004), eating practices demonstrated in most food advertisements may be contributing to unhealthy eating habits. As Brennan et al. (2008) report, advertising’s reflection of a balanced nutrition is further diffused by the use of exaggerated claims on the products’ benefits. More precisely, food advertisements frequently include explicit or implicit claims on the product’s ability to “enhance popularity, performance, mood” and overall health (Roberts and Pettigrew, 2007, p.357). For example, chocolate advertisements were frequently found to include pictures of milk, which may implicitly create wrong assumptions about the product’s nutritional content (Roberts and Pettigrew, 2007). Likewise, explicit nutritional claims may be misguiding if, for example, they promote a product to be “fat-free”, while undermining high sugar content (Williams, 2005).

Further adding to the criticism on children’s advertising is the increasing use of persuasive tactics, developed to attract young consumers (Nairn and Fine, 2008). Such persuasive tactics include the use of emotional appeals, such as humour or peer popularity, as well as the presentation of premiums, comic characters or celebrity endorsement in order to promote the product (Rozendaal, Buijzen and Valkenburg, 2011, p.334). There is evidence from both qualitative and quantitative studies that promotional characters attract children’s attention, and create positive attitudes as well as product recognition (Kelly et al., 2010, p.1734). Similarly, premiums are assumed to influence children’s product likings because children are unable to distinguish between product and premium (Carruth, Skinner, Moran and Coletta, 2000).

The vast bulk of research provides evidence that advertising does substantially influence children’s beliefs, attitudes, and also their product choices (Carlson, Laczniak and Wertley, 2011). Through a qualitative experiment, Gorn and Goldberg (1982) found that children who were exposed to non-core food commercials were more likely to choose non-core food than children who were exposed to fruit commercials. Additionally, several studies (Goldberg, 1990; Dhar and Baylis, 2011) demonstrated that a ban of fast food advertisements was followed by decreasing fast food consumption.

With regards to Livingstone’s (2009) notion on the ethicality of child-directed advertising, children’s advertising for non-core food may be harmful in two ways. Firstly, because children may be persuaded and misguided by tactics and claims. And secondly, because the persuasion to consume non-core food, paired with a questionable image of eating practices, may contribute to child obesity.

2.1.3 Influences on advertising’s effects on children

In search for the link between advertising and children’s consumption behaviour, research has discussed the influence of two main factors: On the one hand, the child’s ability to understand advertising, and on the other hand, parents’ rearing practices (Carlson, Laczniak and Wertley, 2011). The former, which research has labelled “advertising literacy”, describes the understanding of the persuasive character of advertising (Livingstone and Helsper, 2006). More specifically, ad­vertising literacy includes three different levels of understanding: the ability to distinguish advertising from other media content, the awareness that advertisers intend to change attitudes and influence purchase behaviour, and lastly, the competence to critically evaluate the advertised product (Rozendaal, Buijzen and Valkenburg, 2011, pp.329-330).


[1] This quote was translated into English by the author of this paper. The German original reads as follows: „Es gibt diese Momente, in denen man intuitiv spürt, dass etwas furchtbar falsch läuft: […] Quietschbunt schreit es von den meisten Verpackungen – im Frühstücksflockenregal, in den schier endlosen Reihen, in denen sich Süßwaren stapeln, selbst in der Joghurt- oder Wurstabteilung. Oft sind die Waren gar nicht mehr als Lebensmittel erkennbar, sondern versteckt hinter Fotos, grellen Farben, Schriftzügen, Zeichnungen, Logos. […] In solchen Momenten fragt man sich, welche Vorstellung Kinder wohl von Lebensmitteln haben, welchen Wert sie ihnen beimessen, was sie über ihre Herstellung und ihre Qualitätsmerkmale wissen, welche Lebensmittel sie selbst einmal als Erwachsene konsumieren werden. Und man ahnt, dass die Antworten wenig erfreulich sein werden.” (Foodwatch, 2012, p.4)

Excerpt out of 45 pages


Food advertising to children
A critical evaluation of public, governmental and corporate responsibilities in Germany
Berlin School of Economics and Law
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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food advertising, advertising ethics, child-directed advertising, advertising regulation, marketing ethics
Quote paper
Anna Lena Hallmann (Author), 2012, Food advertising to children, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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