Unethical Food Marketing to Children

Dr Gursharan Si... | October 17,2014 03:28 pm IST

Marketing Ethics is the area of applied ethics which deals with the moral principles behind the operation and regulation of marketing. Some areas of marketing ethics, namely, ethics of advertising and promotion overlap with media ethics.

Business ethics has been an increasing concern among larger companies, at least since the 1990s.

It is a difficult subject because of a fine line between aggressive good business and business practice that is harmful to one party or another. Although ethics has certainly become a hotly debated topic of discussion, but most marketers believe that they are honestly presenting what they have to sell to consumers. Unfortunately, most of them have not explored just what consumers believe about their products or compared those opinions to the realities of product delivery. Ignorance is no excuse for mistakes, and ethical breaches cannot be excused, because marketers were ostensibly unaware of their deceptions.

Some unethical behaviour happens because the violator just doesn't understand where the line is. In a global market-place, success attracts competition and competition forces all players to do anything they might not otherwise do. This happens to be the mantra in a market-driven economy, and it is the single most common reason why some marketers believe that virtually any means are justified by the end. Market economies demand success and promise rewards commensurate with effort, often regardless of the intent of that effort.

Ethics can sometimes take a back-seat to the need to please. All are looking for the same thing: Profitable Revenue. They are ethical professionals who want to operate accordingly, but compensated for financial results. We are all shocked (if not surprised) by the blatant and intentional forms of ethical violations that are becoming more common today, but more subtle types are the most insidious. Trust between buyer and seller can be seriously damaged in either case, but the subtle unethical actions can do considerable damage to valuable brand equity before anyone notices that something is not quite right. And, if such actions are intentional, the violators are every bit as culpable.

Whatever be the type or motivation, ethical behaviour is now permanently on the minds of customers in virtually all industries, including food. Major corporations increasingly fear the damage to their image associated with press revelations of unethical practices. Marketing ethics and marketing law are related subjects. Relevant areas of law include Consumer Law, which protects consumers, and Anti-Trust Law, which protects competitors - in both cases, against unethical marketing practices. Regulation extends beyond the law to lobbies, watch-dog bodies and self-regulatory industry bodies.

Marketers have been among the fastest to perceive the market's preference for ethical companies, often moving faster to take advantage of the shift in consumer taste. This results in the expropriation of ethics itself as a selling point or a component of a corporate image. The selective marketing is used to discourage demand from undesirable market sectors or disenfranchise them altogether. Marketers across the world and even in India are targeting children for marketing of their products. Kids represent an important demographic factor to marketers because they have their own purchasing power, they influence their parents' buying decisions, and are the adult consumers of the future. Parents today are willing to buy more for their kids because of trends such as smaller family size, dual incomes, and postponement of children until later in life; it means that families have more disposable income. Moreover, guilt plays a significant role in spending decisions as time-stressed parents substitute material goods for time they couldn't spend with their kids.

Today's kids have more autonomy and decision-making power within the family than in previous generations. Kids are more vocal about what they want their parents to buy. Marketing to children is all about creating pester power, because advertisers know what a powerful force it can be. Pester Power refers to children's ability to nag their parents into purchasing items they may not otherwise buy. Pestering or nagging can be divided into two categories - "persistence" and "importance". Persistence Nagging is a plea, that is repeated over and over again, is not as effective as the more sophisticated importance nagging. This latter method appeals to parents' desire to provide the best for their children, and plays on any guilt they might have about not having enough time for their kids.

Children are a lucrative market and their main products are unhealthy foods, fashionware and entertainment goods. Food companies are desperate for sales and growth and if they can use 'health' to sell junk food, they will. Children have been bombarded with advertisements on Burgers and Cola, of Pizza and Fries. Brilliantly marketed highly salty foods are being deliberately targeted for our children's lunch-boxes. The liking for salty foods is a learned taste preference set in childhood and so encouraging children to eat high levels of salt sets the seeds for vascular diseases, increasing the risk of developing stroke and heart diseases later in life. High salt intakes have also been linked to osteoporosis, stomach cancer, asthma and kidney diseases. Their preference for any meal is high on fat, sugar, and salty species, and low on nutrients. Influences created by marketers on children may be harmful but the one created on food and hygiene is the worst.

The issue of excessive food marketing to kids is fast becoming a hotly debated topic. Marketing to children under age eight is unethical because young children don't have the critical thinking skills required to evaluate media messages. Children under twelve spend more on their own or influence family spending decisions but are not capable of resisting or understanding marketing tactics at such younger ages. At older ages, competitive feelings towards children are stronger than financial sense. The use of marketing practices targeted at children to sell highly salted products is unethical marketing practice. Ethical practices are aimed to ensure a sustained market. Although promotional techniques are used to encourage usage by a particular target audience, they should not be used on those that are vulnerable and at such a crucial stage of health and development.


Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth started his career as Lecturer at Post Graduate Dept. of Economics, Government College, Gurdaspur, and later at Khalsa College; Amritsar, specializes in Quantitative & Development Economics. Has the distinction of serving Punjab Agricultural Univ, Ludhiana, for more than 2 decades and r...