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Advertising, Nutrition and Kids



International Food Information Council Foundation


A Word to Parents

Nutrition and Advertising -- Basic Training

A Guide to Daily Food Choices

Role of Parents in Helping Children Understand and Evaluate Food Ads

Tying Advertising and Nutrition Together

Caru Self-Regulatory Guidelines

How To Complain About Children's Ads

Food Guide Pyramid


Health, Safety, Nutrition and Kids

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A Word to Parents...

Today's marketplace offers more choices than previous generations could have imagined. Supermarket shelves are filled to the top with countless assortments of food products available to satisfy every tastebud and nutritional need. Consumers know what they want -- variety! Sometimes, however, parents and children can become overwhelmed by the multitude of choices and the advertisements highlighting these products.

The Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) is the industry supported self-regulatory system of the children's advertising industry. CARU works with the industry to ensure that advertising directed to kids is truthful, and above all, fair. By promoting adherence to self-regulatory guidelines, CARU seeks to maintain a balance between regulating the messages children receive from advertising, and promoting the dissemination of important information to children through advertising.

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation is an independent public foundation that develops educational and scientific programs in food safety and nutrition. The Foundation is affiliated with the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a nonprofit organization supported by the broad food and beverage industry.

CARU and IFIC have prepared this guide to provide parents with information and strategies to help you and your children evaluate food advertising, make informed decisions and create a healthy balance of food and nutrition choices that are right for your family.

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Nutrition and Advertising -- Basic Training

When helping children understand food advertisements and how to select foods, it is important for parents to understand some basic nutrition information. Because nutrition is an evolving science it often seems complex and confusing. Unfortunately, some people get so frustrated by the mixed messages that they end up ignoring nutrition recommendations all together.

Applying nutrition to everyday eating habits is fairly simple. A few basic nutrition principles coupled with common sense will help you and your children make wise food choices from the many advertised messages you see and hear. Implementing sound, healthy advice now helps your children develop sensible habits that will last a lifetime.

Food Guidance for Optimal Growth and Development

The first 18 years of life are often described as the formative years because of the many rapid changes occurring. Therefore, the goal of nutrition during this period is to promote optimal growth and development.

It is very important to teach children how to manage all types of foods in their diets rather than to forbid or eliminate certain foods. Incorporating the idea of balance, moderation and variety also helps children evaluate food ads and make choices about products.

Balance and Moderation

All foods fit into a healthy diet when the basic principles of balance and moderation are applied. A balanced diet incorporates foods from the five food groups every day. These include: breads, cereals and whole grains; fruits; vegetables; meats and other proteins; and milk, yogurt and cheese. People who have a balanced diet ensure that they get proper portions of each food by eating from these groups in moderation; they do not overindulge. A good strategy in teaching children about balance and moderation is explaining that a healthy diet is much like a puzzle; each piece is an important part of the whole picture. So, just as there are puzzle pieces with different colors, shapes and sizes, there are foods with different amounts of fiber, vitamins, minerals, sugar, fat, salt and calories. That's what balance and moderation are all about.


To meet their nutritional requirements, children, like adults, need a variety of foods. By exposing your children to a number of foods, you can teach them to appreciate the many different tastes and textures available instead of developing a habit of eating a few, specific foods.

It is important for children to realize that eating is a pleasurable experience. Trying a variety of foods and learning about the many choices is an important part of this experience.

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A Guide to Daily Food Choices

The Food Guide Pyramid shows what types of foods to eat each day recommended by the U.S. Government Dietary Guidelines. It's not a rigid prescription but a general guide, based on advice from leading nutrition experts. The Pyramid is based on nutrition principles which enable you and your family to choose a healthy diet that all will enjoy.


Everyone likes, and growing children often need, a little something to keep them going between meals. Snacks offer an opportunity to provide additional nutrients to the daily diet. Fruits and vegetables supplement the daily diet with vitamins, few calories and little fat and cholesterol, and therefore are great snacks to offer.

Because cookies, candy, chips and sodas are the snacks children usually see advertised, there is little doubt that they will want these items. When children and adults have a balanced, varied diet with moderate portions, snacks like these can fit into a healthful diet.

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Role of Parents in Helping Children Understand and Evaluate Food Ads

Advertising awareness doesn't necessarily mean being wary of ads. In fact, understanding the food product and how it is sold can help you and your children establish a sensible diet.

What is Advertising and How Does it Work?

Advertising in general, and television advertising in particular, can be a valuable tool in learning about a product. Like any tool, using it properly takes time and practice. As with so much of what children learn and absorb, parental guidance is essential.

Making Advertising Work for You -- Strategies for Parents

A good way to begin evaluating food advertising messages is to point out products in television and magazine ads, and ask your children to describe the similarities and differences. While discussing the ads, ask:

  • What methods (e.g., animation, music, bright colors or celebrities) do the manufacturers use to sell their products?
  • How do these methods affect your children's thoughts on these products? Do the props make the product more interesting to them?
  • What is the message? (e.g., You'll be stronger, smarter, have more fun if you eat/drink the product.) Do your children believe it?
A product's packaging is another way to draw attention to the product. You may want to have your children examine an apple then ask them to look at the packaging, or labels, on apple juice, apple sauce or apple pie. Ask them to explain the similarities and differences between each product, as well as what they find attractive about each product.

Advertising Methods

Three popular methods of marketing foods to children are "premiums", "sweepstakes" and "clubs". These are appropriate forms of children's advertising as long as they meet CARU's Advertising Guidelines. Knowing about the following CARU suggestions for advertisers can help you use and benefit from these types of ads.

1. Premiums

Premiums have been around since Dick Tracy decoder rings and Little Orphan Annie stickers were offered more than 50 years ago. Children sometimes have difficulty distinguishing products from premiums. Therefore, CARU suggests that advertisers do the following:

  • If product advertising contains a premium message, the child's attention should be focused primarily on the product and the premium message must clearly be secondary.
  • Conditions of a premium offer should be stated simply and clearly. Disclaimers and disclosures should be stated in terms that can be understood by the child audience.

2. Sweepstakes

Sweepstakes can be exciting, as any adult who has played a lottery or entered a drawing can attest. Advertisers must be careful not to raise children's expectations of their chances of winning or inflate their perception of the prize(s) offered. When you see an ad with a sweepstakes, notice if the advertiser has followed these four points:

  • The prize(s) should be clearly presented.
  • The odds of winning should be clearly noted in the audio portion of the commercial, for instance, "Many will enter, only a few will win."
  • All prizes should be appropriate for the child audience.
  • Alternate means of entry should be disclosed.

3. Kids Clubs

Kids love clubs! Anytime your children want to join a club, be sure to ask several key questions. (What will you get? What Will the club entitle you to?) Before advertisers use the word "club," the following requirements should be met:

  • Interactivity -- The child should perform an action whereby he joins the club and receives something in return. For example, filling out a form or application and receiving a card or certificate. Watching a program or eating in a restaurant does not constitute membership.
  • Continuity -- There should be an ongoing relationship between the club and members, such as a newsletter.
  • Exclusivity -- The activities or benefits derived from club membership should be exclusive to its members.

You should be sure that any information that the sponsoring organization receives about your children will be used only for this club and not released to other services.

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Tying Advertising and Nutrition Together -- Additional Activities For You to Try

Below are some additional activities for you and your children to do together. Each one stresses the nutrition principles of balance, variety and moderation, as well as the role advertising plays in conveying these messages.

1. Nutrition Bingo

Prior to watching television, discuss the five food groups and the food pyramid with your children. While you are watching, have them cut out or draw pictures of new foods they see -- either in the program or in ads -- and would like to try. Afterward, give them a large picture of the pyramid and ask them to place the pictures in the appropriate food group on the pyramid. Together, you can review the foods and make a shopping list of new foods to help round out their diet.

2. What's Inside/What's Outside

While at the grocery store, have your children select two different brands of a product (e.g., animal crackers) they have seen advertised. At home, talk about the similarities and differences between the packaging and the product. You might want to discuss:

  • How the product is depicted? (e.g., Is it shown prominently? Is it scattered among different characters? Is it shown with a celebrity?)
  • How does it appear to look on the outside? How does it really look inside?
  • Is the inside what your children expected based on the outside?
  • Is this a new product for your children? If so, did the packaging persuade them to investigate the inside?

3. Coming Up to the Plate Again

Sometimes your children will see a food advertised that, although they have tried before and didn't like, they decide they want to try again. To encourage a varied and healthful diet, that's precisely what you want them to do, but limits should also be set. Allow them to try the food again. If they don't like it the second time, that's okay. You may find later they see the product and want to try it for a third time. If after the third time it isn't a "hit," call this food a "strike-out" and look for another food to fill that space in the pyramid.

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Caru Self-Regulatory Guidelines

The CARU Self-Regulatory Guidelines for Children's Advertising provide a basis for evaluating child-directed advertising. These guidelines are based on six underlying principles:

  • Children have a limited capacity for evaluating information, therefore, advertisers have a special responsibility to protect young children from their own susceptibilities.
  • Advertisers should be careful not to exploit children's imaginative qualities, creating unrealistic expectations for their products.
  • Advertisers should recognize that children may try to imitate what they see in ads which may affect their health and well-being.
  • Since ads have the potential to influence behavior, advertisers should provide examples of positive and beneficial social behavior.
  • Advertisers should avoid social stereotyping and appeals to prejudice.
  • A parent's prime responsibility is to guide a child's personal and social skills.

Advertisers should contribute to this relationship in a constructive manner.

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How To Complain About Children's Ads

With the thousands of advertisements that exist at any given point in time, it is inevitable (though still unfortunate) that some run afoul of the self-regulatory standards of the Children's Advertising Review Unit. If the ad that comes to your attention is local in nature, such as for a local department store, contact your local Better Business Bureau. The BBB will intervene directly with the advertiser in seeking to resolve the complaint.

National advertising comes under the scope of CARU. Such ads promote goods or services on a national or broad regional basis. A typical national ad might highlight a brand of food or a toy. When complaining about specific ads, keep in mind the following:

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Food Guide Pyramid

The Food Guide Pyramid emphasizes foods from the five major food groups. Each of these food groups provides some, but not all, of the nutrients you need. Foods in one group can't replace those in another. No one of the major food groups is more important than another -- for good health, you need them all.

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Reprinted from the International Food Information Council Foundation and Council of Better Business Bureaus, Inc., 1993

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