Hook Them Young
Forty-one years ago, a major broadcast marketing publication printed this:
“If you’re selling, Charlie’s Mom is buying. But you’ve got to sell Charlie first. His allowance is only fifty cents a week, but his buying power is an American phenomenon. When Charlie sees something he likes, he usually gets it. Just ask General Mills or McDonald’s.”
When brought to the attention of the public, many people were rightfully outraged. An FTC investigation followed, and to the shock of no one, the industry rebuffed calls for accountability and regulation. Learnings from the early playbook of Big Tobacco set the food industry up with the tools it needed to flip the conversation from one of industry accountability to that of consumer choice and parental responsibility.
One executive went so far as to say, "Children, like everyone else, must learn the marketplace. You learn by making judgments. Even if a child is deceived by an ad at age 4, what harm is done? He will grow out of it. He is in the process of learning to make his own decisions."
Right, because four-year olds are notorious for good decision making.
As the mother of a four-year old, obviously I think the industry statements are outrageous. Even more outrageous to me though, is the fact that the Washington Post article that reported on these early efforts to curtail marketing to children is from 1979. Forty years later and we’re still having this conversation.
The food industry is still using the same tactics to avoid culpability - blaming consumers and parents primarily - while scheming behind the scenes, looking for ways to make our children “customers for life.”
The thing is, the food industry knows exactly which marketing tactics are most effective and they’re experts at using them. Customer for life strategies - aka hook them young - all but guarantee revenue well into our children’s adulthood. They also all but guarantee some form of diet-related disease later on, but the food industry by and large does not care.
Each of us (and probably every person you know) has likely been influenced by one or more of their customer for life marketing strategies. Ever buy a box of sugary cereal because it reminds you of your childhood? Purchase some food product because of the retro “limited edition packaging” that is eerily reminiscent of that summer you were six? Or swing through the drive-through lane and order a crispy chicken sandwich (the adult equivalent of a chicken nugget happy meal) and have the taste of those french fries take you back a few decades?
None of this is by accident.
The core of the industry’s playbook is simple: create doubt. And you know who doesn’t have the critical thinking abilities to know what's true and what's not? 4 year olds. Children. It's easier to earn the loyalty of a customer young than it is to create doubt when they're older.
Turns out, hooking people young, creating doubt that the product - the beloved product from your childhood - is responsible for negative outcomes, blaming consumers, and outright denying responsibility is wildly effective.
It was effective in 1979 and it’s effective now.
Take for example this more recent quote from Steve Anderson, the former president of the National Restaurant Association, who said this when asked about fast food's role in diet-related disease, "Whatever happened to old-fashioned discipline? Just because we have electricity doesn't mean you have to electrocute yourself.” (Brownell, 2009)
Which is, I suppose, a fair point. Until you realize the food industry is leaving live wires disguised as jump ropes everywhere and is indifferent to our electrocution.