Parents seek a healthy reassurance

Many adult consumers have developed a credit system, whereby healthy eating also allows for indulgence – a trend which can be applied to a child’s diet. However, the average school diet has long given cause for concern, with surveys finding that children eat too much ‘junk food’, saturated fats and not enough fresh fruit and vegetables. Even the most responsible parent can have trouble persuading children to eat well, since ‘junk foods’, sweets and salty snacks are so widely available.

Trust is a major factor in parental purchasing decisions – they want a credible brand (or own label) which they know will provide protein in an interesting, fun format, for example, fish fingers and chicken nuggets. Children’s foods are not overtly marketed as healthy, since manufacturers have the dilemma of wishing to appeal to parental health concerns, while also appearing credible as a product children will enjoy. Healthy eating for children has a somewhat negative image. Health-orientated products in the frozen chips and baked beans sectors have been developed, but tend to be marketed to appeal to a wider audience than just children.

Certain processed and frozen foods marketed for children are higher in fat, sugar and salt than unprocessed equivalents, but they can be a useful way of encouraging children to eat a varied diet. Parents need to be reassured about the food they buy for their children. Pesticides and GM foods are constantly being debated. Leading manufacturers have vowed not to include GM ingredients and many supermarkets have bowed to customer pressure to either implement a ban or clearly label such products. Pester power Children are brand and advertising literate, and able to make informed decisions when buying a product, or persuading mum to buy it.

Manufacturers and retailers exploit this trend via character merchandising, limited edition foods, novelty value, promotions and advertising. TGI data indicate that virtually all households have a television, with 39% having two or more, and 28% have three or more. Television is a key leisure activity for children, with brands investing heavily in advertising directly to them via this medium, including digital television and dedicated children’s channels like the Cartoon Network. Character merchandising has now firmly crossed over into the food market with products borrowing imagery from films and television, as well as toys and books.

It is particularly prevalent in the canned pasta and beans sectors. Merchandising is at a low level in-store, and in some product areas near the checkout when child boredom thresholds are at their most strained and parental resistance may be weakest. There are five main categories of character merchandising used in food (and other products): traditional cartoons (eg Tom & Jerry), dolls (eg Barbie, Action Man), comics/books (eg Winnie the Pooh), films (eg Godzilla) and television (eg Street Sharks).

Manufacturers may have a range of characters appealing to different age groups, from toddler favourites such as Thomas the Tank Engine and Postman Pat, through to Power Rangers and Street Sharks to Barbie and Action Man, as well as established characters such as Noddy, Sooty and Peter Rabbit, and new characters to appear as part of tie-ins with film launches, such as Batman and Godzilla. Targeting is gender-specific, not only in terms of the characters, but the products themselves Traditionally associated with canned foods, character merchandising is becoming more widespread.

Towards the end of 1998, Hasbro licensed the Action Man logo to Sun Valley Foods and MD Foods to produce an Action Meal, with Action Man shaped chicken nuggets. Advertising attracts criticism In May 1999, the government announced a commitment to investigate companies using ‘pester power’ to gain sales. Ministers are concerned that children as young as three years old are being targeted, and that parents are often ‘blackmailed’ into buying foods which may be expensive, or high in fat, salt or sugar. The Swedish government has already signalled that it wants a ban on advertising aimed at children when it takes up presidency of the EU in 2001.

In Britain, pressure groups want the new Food Standards Agency, which will be set up to monitor food ‘from the plough to the plate’ to be given powers to tackle products targeted at children, arguing that there is evidence that manufacturers routinely ignore the codes of the ITC and the ASA. However, the Food & Drink Federation claims that the use of popular characters is designed to help parents by making food attractive to children, while the Advertising Association claims that children are better able to assess commercial communication than has traditionally been recognised.

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