The Nag Factor: How Marketers Use Kids To Sell Junk Food

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I took my 4-year-old to the grocery store yesterday for our regular semi-weekly trip. He rode in a plastic race-car cart and mostly talked to himself or made various vocal observations about how long the trip was taking (ahem). But when we got to the cereal aisle, he was suddenly completely engaged. (You know where this is going, don’t you?)

“Mom! Stop! I want that! Go back! See that one! LET’S GET THAT!” he shrieked giddily.

Something clearly had caught his little eye and was not letting go. And even though I already knew which box was the culprit, I still asked him to explain.

“The SILLY box! I want the silly cereal!” he pointed at Fred Flinstone’s face. He wanted Fruity Pebbles.

“But you’ve never even had that cereal before,” I pointed out. “What if you don’t like it?”

That was a moot point to him. “I want it!” he demanded. Shocked by his sudden outburst, I gave him a warning, which caused him to snap out of it and realize his efforts were in vain.

Thankfully, my boy is not a fit-thrower when we’re shopping (one of the reasons I was happy to bring him along, when I could have left him at home with his dad and brother). But Fred’s face had him at hello. And while I somehow managed to thwart Melt Down City AND skip purchasing any sugary cereal this trip, a study I recently read suddenly took over my thoughts and I chuckled to myself at what a statistic my son is. 

In August, researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published “The Nag Factor” in the Journal of Children and Media. The study found three different ways in which our kids nag us to buy them junk food and 10 different strategies that we moms deploy to try to deflect the nagging. And remember, it’s us, not them, who manage the purse strings, so our kiddos’ tactics are breaking through at pretty high levels. Marketers have known this for decades of course, which is probably why Fred’s face has graced Fruity Pebbles boxes since 1971.

Nagging sells.

How? And what are moms doing about it? “The Nag Factor” researcher Dina Borzekowski, EdD, EdM, MA, said, “One’s familiarity with commercial television characters was significantly associated with overall and specific types of nagging. In addition, mothers cited packaging, characters and commercials as the three main forces compelling their children to nag.”

Have you ever pondered how your kids’ food requests might change if popular cartoon characters graced the packaging that houses… let’s say… chopped veggies? Or if characters weren’t allowed to pitch foods that offered a nutritional value below a certain level?

Do your kids’ nudges get you to cave? Do TV commercials or cartoon faces on product packaging elicit immediate reactions from your wee ones? If so, how do you respond?

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