Manufacturers Continue to Target Children With Sugary Cereals Ads

Despite their participation in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a self-regulatory industry group pledged to reduce the marketing of unhealthy products to children, the food industry continues to aggressively promote its least nutritious cereals to children.

That’s the troubling, but perhaps not surprising, conclusion of a new study, the findings of which were released in summarized form today by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.  (The detailed findings will be presented this Sunday during the Biennial Conference of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues in Charlotte, North Carolina.)

Entitled “the Cereal FACTS report,” the study found that although:

companies have improved the nutritional quality of most cereals marketed directly to children . . .they also have increased advertising to children for many of their least nutritious products. . . .

From 2008 to 2011, total media spending to promote child-targeted cereals increased by 34 percent.

Following up on its 2009 cereal study, the Rudd Center once again examined the nutritional quality of more than 100 brands and nearly 300 individual varieties of cereal, as well as the scope of industry advertising on television, the Internet, and social media sites.  Some key findings:

The good news is that the overall nutritional quality improved for 13 of the 14 brands advertised to children, with increases in fiber and decreases in sugar and sodium.  And children viewed fewer TV ads for 7 of 14 child-targeted brands, including Corn Pops and Honeycomb.

The bad news is that children viewed more TV ads than ever for the remaining seven child-targeted brands, including Reese’s Puffs, Froot Loops, and Pebbles.  Furthermore, some companies stepped up their Internet promotion of these brands, including the launch of a new Pebbles website from Post and a doubling in banner advertising by Kellogg on child-directed websites like  Kellogg also introduced the “first food company advergame for mobile phones and tablets targeted to children for Apple Jacks.”

The study also found that companies are increasing their targeting of Hispanic children by doubling Spanish-language TV ads.  Hispanic children’s exposure to these ads tripled.

And of course, it’s no surprise that when companies market their lower-sugar cereals like regular Cheerios, the ads are directed to parents, but when marketing the sugary stuff, kids are the target audience.  On that point, Marlene Schwartz, co-author of the study and deputy director of the Rudd Center, had this to say:

While cereal companies have made small improvements to the nutrition of their child-targeted cereals, these cereals are still far worse than the products they market to adults. They have 56 percent more sugar, half as much fiber, and 50 percent more sodium.  The companies know how to make a range of good-tasting cereals that aren’t loaded with sugar and salt. Why can’t they help parents out and market these directly to children instead?

Right on.

Overall the study provides yet more proof that industry “self-regulation” in this area has yet to be truly meaningful, and we already know that efforts to federally regulate the food industry are also likely to fail, given Big Food’s well-documented grip on our elected officials.

But the recent announcement by Disney that it’s ditching junk food advertising for kids does give me a bit of hope.  There’s clearly a market of parents out there looking for companies to support them in their efforts to feed their children well — and a growing resentment among these consumers toward companies that prey on their children with aggressive junk food marketing.

Will free market forces ever tip in favor of these consumers, forcing companies to do the right thing if only to preserve profits?

Or do you think I’ve taken up residence in Disney’s Fantasyland?

For more information on the study, visit  You can also follow the conversation about the study on Twitter at @YaleRuddCenter with the hashtag #cerealfacts.

And, by the way, later this summer I hope to share with you some more information on the Rudd Center and the many resources it offers parents in the areas of school food reform, wellness policies and more.  Stay tuned.

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  1. Bettina Elias Siegel says

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  2. Aubrey says

    Seems a highly exaggerated ‘indictment’ of cereal companies here.

    There’s nothing indicating the cereal companies violated their voluntary pledge with the “Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative”.

    In fact (according to the posted references), the overall nutritional quality improved 93% in the cereal brands advertised to children, with increases in fiber and decreases in sugar & sodium. And children (age 7-14) actually viewed fewer TV ads for child-targeted brands, including sugary cereal brands like Corn Pops and Honeycomb.

    Those cereal companies should get some praise for those improvements; however, these critics (like Rudd political activists) apparently won’t be satisfied until all advertising for children’s cereal is abolished (…except for 100% organic, taste-free, oat bran cereal).

    A little objectivity & fairness would be nice on this cereal stuff.
    Citing only two, very partisan sources with the same view, — seems rather biased.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says


      I agree the companies deserve some credit for improving the nutritional profile of some cereals, which is why I mentioned the finding in this post. But I still object to targeting children with advertising for cereals which, as the Rudd Center pointed out, can provide one teaspoon of sugar for every three teaspoons of cereal.

      I should also note that my thinking on this topic has evolved over time. I used to feel, and still do, that the final gate-keeping necessarily rests with parents, who can either say yes or no to the purchase of these products. But I’ve also been greatly persuaded by research on the cognitive development of children which indicates that even kids as old as 5th and 6th grade are surprisingly captive to advertising messages, accepting the majority of them as true with no filter or built-in skepticism. I now agree that directing almost $2 billion in annual advertising dollars toward these immature minds, sometimes reaching kids as young as two years old, especially through means that are disguised as something other than advertising (such as online games, apps), can fairly be called a predatory practice.

      To turn the question around, if a product is so desirable, why can’t these companies sell the same number of cereal boxes by directing the advertising solely at parents?

  3. mommm!!! says

    I dunno, I think I’m going to go out on a limb and say that a change in consumer behaviour is probably what’s behind the big push for cheap sugar laden “cereals” that cost the same if not more than the more nutritious (that’s a stretch) commercial “cereals” in advertising budgets. From a marketing perspective, it’s failing products that get the overhauls and extra pumps of advertising dollars. Perhaps, people aren’t buying as much as the advertising would lend one to believe, hence all the extra advertising.

    And is it just me, or have the “flavors” gotten really bizarre? Smorz, Cookie Crisp, Cupcake Pebbles? Those are all DESSERTS :/ Reeses Puffs, Krave, Double Chocolate Krave (eek!), and I could swear I saw one of those marshmallow cereals once that was all marshmallows and no cereal….all candy. Not to mention adding frosting and/or chocolate versions to all of the old standbys.

    I’m betting that the recent push to market even worse cereals are a response to a possible loss in sales over this junk. I think the profit margins are too high to just give up on them. Kashi just went through some major backlash after selling to Kellogg because of the whole GMO thing and it even lost vendors over it.

  4. aubrey says

    Well, the original post here castigated cereal-companies because they were ‘still’ advertising their “least nutritious cereals to children”, ‘despite’ the CFBAI (and significant improvements under it). But what then would be the satisfactory level of cereal advertising to children ?

    The coyly unstated answer from the cereal-company critics is, of course, NO advertising to children whatsoever at all, for anything subjectively deemed non-nutritious.

    Thus, there’s been a steady drumbeat against CFBAI since its 2006 inception (no matter what it accomplishes) by the Rudd food-police and supporters. CFBAI abolition of such children’s cereal advertising — would be the only fully acceptable action by CFBAI.

    Rudd & crowd originally came close to forcefully abolishing such cereal advertising (and much more) thru new federal regulations (FTC), but were ultimately blocked in Congress. Their tactical fallback position was a well-organized public-relations/propaganda campaign against the cereal-companies, that continues to this day. The cereal-companies responded with the CFBAI (..and CFBAI itself then became a primary Rudd target).

    Rudd’s strategic objective is to stop humans from eating what Ruddys consider non-nutritious food; kids & cereal is a subset of that goal. Tactically, they would like to ban the commercial sale of “unhealthy” food; since that’s hard to do under U.S. law, they focused
    on strangling commercial advertising of such products.

    Attacks on commercial advertising have been popular among activist elites at least since J.K. Galbraith’s 1958 “The Affluent Society”. Galbraith’s entire theory of excess affluence rests on his totally unsupported assertions that consumer wants are artificially ‘created’ by business/advertising. So if adults are so vulnerable to the mind-control of advertising … all naive young children are easily converted to sugar-cereal-fat-zombie-addicts by TV commercials. That’s the mythology embraced by true-believers.

    In truth, advertising merely conveys information to consumers about what a product is … and how will satisfy an existing want.
    Would children have no desire for sweets, absent advertising ? Kids are the ultimate kid’s-cereal consumers and that’s why cereal advertising is “targeted” at them, not parents only (parents see those commercials, too). Should children’s XMAS toy advertising be restricted only to parents, because they make the direct purchase ?

    If companies could really create demand purely thru advertising, they would never again have to worry about financial losses or failure to sell automatically anything they chose to produce. Certainly there would be no need for the vast sums now spent on marketing research. Why bother investigating in detail what consumers really want, if all one need do is to create the wants for them by advertising ?

    Bemoaning cereal advertising is unproductive. Diet, nutrition, health and lifestyle comprise a very complex subject with few absolutes.

    {P.S. I never heard of CFBAI or Rudd prior to seeing this blog article; did some web research out of curiosity}

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says


      I simply have to disagree with your notion that advertising merely informs consumers and doesn’t stimulate desire. If your position were true, why would television advertisers need to do anything but describe the attributes of the product in black text on a white screen? “Hey, parents and children: this cereal is made from oats, sugar and cinnamon and will satisfy your hunger.” Why do advertisers instead pay hefty licensing fees to be able to use the cartoon characters kids adore? Why do they hire food stylists? Why do they pay child actors with whom the young viewer can identify? Why do they build elaborate websites that lure kids in with video games only to promote their products? I can assure you that the food industry would not be spending $2 billion dollars on advertising to children if they were not quite certain that such advertising stimulates demand, rather than merely “informing” consumers.

      Let me be clear: I have no quarrel with advertisers pulling out all the stops when it comes to adults, an audience which can be expected to apply critical thinking and which is fully aware that it’s “being pitched.” But research makes clear that children lack those capabilities entirely. That, to my mind, changes the analysis.

    • mommm!!! says

      Actually, there are deep seeded psychological beginnings to advertising that go back to the 1800s. There have been many essays , books, etc written by brilliant minds of psychology also dating back to as early as the 1800s, all of which have really made a science out of how to influence consumer spending. Gustave Le Bon, Wilfred Trotter, Gabriel Tarde, Freud, just to name a few.

      Also, entire grocery stores are laid out with the sole intention of getting you to buy as much junk food as they can from the moment you walk in to the moment you leave. It’s all about product placement from where it is in the store to where it is on the shelf. They even know which end of the grocery isle more people enter on, therefore determining the flow of traffic. That’s why when you go down the cereal isle, all the organic cereals (if there are any) are at the end after you’ve walked past all the sugary stuff. It’s the same thing with beer, sodas, snacks, etc. Yet, there is no sign when you enter exclaiming why the store is laid out in such a way. There is no tv ad to adults describing how great the grocery store lay out is and why.
      No. And why not? Because they don’t want you to know that. Advertising is just one component of much larger marketing plans for products.

      And advertising has gone way beyond tv ads on tv at home. It’s promotional products, it’s free video games, it’s “sign up to win this or that”, etc. Did you know that in public schools, some one million kids are forced to watch what they call “Channel 1 News” while at school? I just recently learned this. Yes, there are commercial breaks. Yes, it’s all junk. I was kind of pissed when I learned about it. I limit my son’s tv intake, in fact it’s pretty nil. But every time he comes to me with some promotion I have to explain to him that it’s just advertising.

      To answer your question, would children have no desire for sweets absent advertising? Probably not, actually. There are many children in the world in many other countries who aren’t raised with Cupcake Pebbles and Pepsi, and strangely, aren’t clamoring for sugar laden goods. Sugar is a low grade addiction. Even traditional “sweets” in other cultures aren’t nearly as sweet as our desserts, or products so sugar heavy that they should be desserts, like lots of cereals on the shelf today.

      Finally, why is breakfast the issue? Well because when you wake up from sleeping, your body hasn’t ingested anything for about 8 hours. So your body is in a state where the first thing you consume gets stored by your body. Processed sugars gets stored as fat, for the most part. So, if the first thing you consume at the beginning of your day is say…an apple…then you get fiber and essential nutrients, etc. On the other hand, if you consume 12 teaspoons of sugar and one gram of fiber, you get no nutrients and guess what? Yes, empty calories and fat. Luckily, childrens metabolisms are much higher than your typical adult, unless that adult is a professional athlete. However, conditioning children to consume large quantities of sugars, chemicals, and dyes will almost guarantee that those children will carry those food habits into adulthood and pass them onto their children. And so here we are, debating everything food related.

      Socially, I think we’ve come to a sad place where such products are even a debate. I don’t think any parent wants to be a willing participant in their child’s ill health. If any person came to any parent and told them to give their child poison, any parent would be mad as hell. Yet, we tend to turn a blind eye to copious amounts of sugars and chemicals because someone has told us it’s safe and that it’s “food”. In fact, lots of people tell us it’s safe “food” from government agencies, to food manufacturers, to advertising agencies, to health officials. However, I rail against crowd psychology. I don’t like to eat food that comes in colors that don’t appear in nature. I’ve never seen a hot pink or purple oat. I’ve never seen an electric blue wheat or a neon green rice. And even good old sugar has been horribly distorted into hfcs. But I also don’t think that Lucky Charms are magically delicious. I think they’re kind of gross and there’s nothing magical about that. Because to me, eating chemicals is gross no matter how much sugar is used to disguise it. Consequently, I wouldn’t feed my child anything that I wouldn’t eat myself. I think our perceptions about what we are really eating when we pick a box off the grocery store shelf needs to change because our definitions of “food” has become become absurdly distorted. And that’s no accident, by the way. That’s marketing.

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