Learn to be Ad Smart!

applesLast week with kids in the Idaho I Have a Dream program, I explored a very powerful topic as related to food—advertising.  Children are exposed to over 20,000 advertisements per year (about 55 ads per day). I pulled information for my lesson from a previous Healthy Kids post.

In this post, we will take a look at several advertisements for food and beverages and discuss strategies and tactics that food/beverage companies use to encourage us to buy their products.  We will then learn how to evaluate and decipher advertisements based on a set of four questions you (and your kids!) should ask every time you are exposed to an advertisement. We will look at the economics of ads, and we’ll notice that most advertisements are for junk foods and sugary beverages (not fresh-from-the-farm products).  I won’t leave you depressed though!  We’ll conclude on an upbeat note as I share with you some great tactics that “a Bunch of Carrot Farmers” are using, as well as a grass-root campaign by kids and families to “pour one out” (sugary drinks) to replace with water.

Why do we have advertisements?


frostedVery simple– Advertising is a type of communication (such as a flyer or commercial) that is used to persuade someone to take action–either buy a product or support an idea.  We see and hear advertisements all the time…on TV, the radio, on buildings and buses, on people’s clothes, and inside stores.  Advertisements are everywhere!  On average, we see about 50-60 ads per day.

Jingles and phrases from ads seem to embed themselves in our memories.  Who doesn’t recognize the phrase… “Their Grrrrreat!”?  Just by saying this phrase, most people will think immediately of the brand and food product Tony the Tiger is talking about.  The fact that we remember the phrase shows that this was an effective advertising campaign!


Advertising tactics or tricks

Companies utilize many tactics such as sweepstakes, endorsements by famous athletes or musicians, or free toys to attract young consumers. I tell my own kids, if you see a cartoon character on the packaging, chances are that it is a junk food;  beware!  For more examples of character tier-ins to junk foods, you can take a look at this slide show of kid-targeting licensed characters, from Sponge Bob pop-tarts to Ninja Turtle Cookies from Health Magazine.  Or if you want to view some really classic advertisements (think Captain Crunch, Cookie Crisp and Lucky Charms), take a look at this somewhat comical montage put together by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

How we can better evaluate/decipher advertisements

Ok, so the leprechaun is cute from Lucky Charms, and who doesn’t love Shrek?  Should we buy the product they are connected to?  Since we see so many advertisements in one day, it is important to learn how to evaluate ads so you can make better choices.  When you see an advertisement, ask yourself four key questions:

Question #1: What is the ad selling    Is it a product?  A service?  What exactly?  I know as we watched some of the ads from the Super Bowl this year, it took us a while to figure out what the segment was all about.  Sometimes we need to get past the bikinis and dancing to realize that the advertisement is trying to sell you a car.

Question #2: Who is the target audience Is the ad for adults?  Teenagers?  Children?  Grandparents?  Try to put yourself in the shoes of the advertisers themselves and think about who they are trying to convince to buy their product.  It can be eye opening to realize that snack food advertisers have little interest in mom/dad/caregiver (who should be the gate-keeper for food buying decisions for the household).  No, they instead are targeting the kids (via their cartoon character, prizes, or whatever)!  And they hope that the kids will whine and beg their way through the grocery store aisles to get the products they heard about on TV.

Question #3:  What is the hook?   A hook is something that advertisers use to grab your attention.  A hook might be a special coupon, a prize, a famous athlete, upbeat music, or a cartoon.  Once you identify the hook, ask yourself, if there was no hook (famous athlete, cool packaging, fun music etc.), would I still be interested in this product?

Question #4: What are they not telling me?

Advertisements can’t lie, but they don’t have to disclose the whole truth.  For example, a fruit punch beverage may have an advertisement or wrapper with images of fresh fruit.  However, if you look at the ingredient list it may not contain any (or may contain just a very small amount) of real fruit juice.  In order to know exactly what you’re getting, it is important to read the small print (such as nutrition labels or ingredient lists).

I love the comment at the end of the advertisements for sugary cereals in the video montage above saying that the sugary bowls of cereal are “PART of a healthy breakfast”…

…are they trying to say, “if you add some healthy breakfast foods” to our sugary treat, then it is a healthy breakfast?

Economics of the advertising industry

moneyDuring the Super Bowl, companies pay $2 million to $3 million for every 30 second ad.  The junk food and sugary beverage industries spend over a billion dollars year on advertising.

As you might imagine, most farmers don’t make enough extra money to pay for advertising.

How “healthy foods” can fight back to get some limelight!

carrotsSo, if our famers don’t have an extra billion dollars to spend on advertising, and it doesn’t make economical sense to “sell” (free) water, then do healthy foods/beverages ever have a fighting chance in the world of advertising?  Here are a few bright spots in the sometimes murky world of food and beverage advertising:

A counter attack on the snack foods industry:

A $25 million campaign was recently launched by a “A bunch of carrot farmers” (namely Bolthouse Farms and nearly 50 other carrot growers).  It set its sights on a giant, big-spending rival – junk food – and uses a lot of the same kinds of visual tactics that junk food companies utilize.

If you have trouble viewing the above, please follow this link:


Questions to ask yourself after viewing the video/ad:

  • Were you surprised by the carrot ad?
  • Is the ad effective?  Are you more interested in baby carrots?
  • How do you think vegetables and fruits could be better marketed to kids?  Via better packaging?  Selling in school vending machines? Endorsed by celebrities?

Please leave a comment… I am curious if you think we can give healthy foods a fighting chance in our marketing-oriented world.

A counter attack on the sugary beverage industry:

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), as part of their Life’s Sweeter with Fewer Sugary Drinks campaign, recently held a “grassroots” video contest called “Pour One Out” as an opportunity to spread the message about the health dangers of sugary drinks. The winner was a “rap” by a family in Nashville, TN, inspired by the Dad’s personal struggle with soda consumption, who now credits his kids for convincing him to make a lifestyle change. He now drinks at least a gallon of water each day and feels much better, physically, after making the switch.  Great job kids!

Next time you view a commercial, ask yourself, do I really want this product?  And if the answer is “yes”, ask yourself… WHY?

Thanks for reading.



-Juliette Britton, RD, Nurture, Curriculum Committee
-Baby Carrot campaign:  http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/industries/food/2010-08-29-baby-carrots-marketing_N.htm
-The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  This research review examines recent trends in food marketing to children and adolescents, as well as policy initiatives undertaken to address the contribution of marketing practices to the childhood obesity epidemic. Policy implications and future research needs are highlighted.  Read the related issue brief.



This column is for information only, and no part of its contents should be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, recommendation or endorsement by the author. You should always ask your physician for his or her recommendation before starting any new health-related activity.


  1. Just pour it out!


  2. kathryn guylay says:

    Here is a great new study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that looked at advertisements on Spanish-language TV.

    They found that 84% of the ads for foods and beverages on these channels were unhealthy!
    Read more here:

  3. Kathryn says:

    Great info from Nutritional Concepts about how important it is to ask, “what are they NOT telling me?”

    Bonnie and Steve: Cargill and the Coca Cola Company, the partnership that brought you Truvia, “nature’s calorie-free sweetener,” is being sued in Hawaii because the plaintiff alleges that Truvia is misleading consumers by marketing it as natural.

    As we warned you before Truvia ever came to market, the ingredients Reb-A steviol glycosides and bulking agent erythritol are highly processed and synthetic.

    Cargill describes the process of obtaining stevia leaf extract as similar to making tea, but does not tell the consumer that Cargill then adds ethanol, methanol, or rubbing alcohol in a patented multi-step process. Hence, Reb-A is not the natural crude preparation of stevia, but rather is a highly chemically processed and purified form of stevia leaf extract.

    We would actually be okay with Truvia if Reb-A was the only ingredient. Unfortunately, erythritol is the game changer. Cargill manufactures synthetic erythritol in a patented process by first chemically extracting starch from genetically modified corn and then converting the starch to glucose through the biochemical process of enzymatic hydrolysis. The glucose is then fermented utilizing moniliella pollinis, a yeast. Because Truvia is 99% erythritol, it absolutely cannot be considered natural.

    We do not think the lawsuit has much of a chance because the FDA is so loose with the labeling term “natural.” However, we do think lawsuits like these are necessary because they are one of the only ways to bring attention to the fact that food manufacturers consistently try to dupe consumers with creative labeling practices. Marketing Truvia as “nature’s calorie-free sweetener” is a prime example.

    We feel that Cargill/Coca Cola’s Truvia and Pepsi’s PureVia have done a major disservice to the stevia industry. Not only have they chemicalized stevia, but have shoved the smaller players, such as our favorite brand, Sweet Leaf, off the shelves with its marketing might and payola practices. If it were not for independent health food stores, we would most likely have only these two brands to choose from.

  4. Kathryn - HKIE says:

    A study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggested that teaching teenagers about advertising might be more effective than simply teaching nutrition facts. Researchers found that framing nutrition education as an expose of deceptive food marketing practices (designed to manipulate teens to eat junk food) or how companies engineer junk food to be as addictive as possible is much more interesting to teens that simply providing nutrition advice.

  5. Kathryn - HKIE says:

    Why you should Pour it Out– diet sodas too!
    A new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society shows that increasing diet soda intake is directly linked to greater abdominal obesity in adults 65 years of age and older. These findings add to the concerns about the safety of chronic diet soda consumption, which may increase belly fat and contribute to greater risk of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular diseases.

    The increase in waist circumference among diet soda drinkers was almost triple that among non-users.

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