Recently, my son asked me to buy him a sports drink after baseball practice with a sideways glance to see if I would bite. He followed with a flurried explanation about being sweaty after running around and some mumbling about electrolytes and his muscles.

He whined and pleaded after my predictable answer that ‘water is the best drink for an athlete.’ But his quest to get those kind of drinks is just like so many other kids. And, what health promotion research says is driven largely by the marketing and advertising kids are exposed to. It’s an experience many parents know well:

  1. Sugary drinks are heavily marketed to kids along side the TV, movies and celebrities they love.
  2. Children exposed to this kind of marketing then nag their parents for unhealthy food and beverages.
  3. Parents who are nagged for junk food or drinks are more likely to give in and buy those unhealthy products. (Although not in this case!!)

It’s amazing to me just how sneaky the marketing is, how persuasive it is and how often it operates on a subconscious level.

Most of us are probably familiar with sports drink sponsorship on TV – seeing football or hockey teams drinking from branded bottles and the branded ice chest being dumped over the winning coach which are such common images in the world of professional sports.

But the marketing has become much more sophisticated.

My son, who doesn’t see any advertising on TV, watches YouTube clips of people doing awesome and extreme sports that are sponsored by one company. He doesn’t even realize that it’s advertising, but he definitely has a high opinion of that particular sports drink.

Another company has gigantic, branded monster trucks that tour around at community events. But that’s not all, this company also sponsors race cars, surfing, skateboarding and mountain & BMX biking competitions and it has a long list of athletes that it supports – not to mention DJs and gamers (yes, that’s videogames).

Visit the sponsored athletes’ Facebook pages or Twitter accounts and you can see strong endorsements for those brands – in the clothes they wear, the images posted and even in their messages.

It’s easy to see how carefully and thoroughly these companies are targeting teens with all things ‘cool’ in their world. Marketers know they can win over-the-shoulder markets on either side of their target. By targeting teens and young adults – they also gain a market share of tweens who want to seem cool and older as well as older guys that want to seem hip and younger.

It’s one thing to have branded bumpf (t-shirts, ball caps and bumper stickers) for men beyond their twenties who want to hold on to their youth,but there are also toys. Marketing to kids is about building brand loyalty at a very early age and therefore creating life-long consumers. Go into any convenience store and you can see the power displays that reinforce all the other TV, on-line and social media marketing – it’s a powerful mix.

With such strong and pervasive marketing, it’s not surprising that teenagers are some of the biggest consumers of sugary drinks. The average Canadian teen consumes 1.2 kilos of sugar from drinks in just one month! This puts our children at direct risk for diabetes and other weight related chronic illnesses such as heart disease and cancer.

This is why I am so keen to be involved in the Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition that recently came together in Canada.  Its vision is for a “Canada where children and parents make nutritious food choices in an environment free of influence from food and beverage marketing.”

The coalition, which is made up of many health organizations and concerned individuals, is calling on the Canadian government to restrict food and beverage marketing to all children and youth under 16 years.

It may be surprising to some that the coalition has asked for a ban that extends to teenagers – but this is based on psychological research which shows that teens are susceptible to marketing because the part of their brain that controls judgement and self-restraint is not fully developed. Young children often can’t even differentiate between advertising and programming!

Initially, the coalition was buoyed up when our new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau directed the health minister to pursue this issue at the start of their mandate.  However, the food and beverage industry has been lobbying the government to water down any potential legislation and pushing a voluntary approach – an approach that would see industry regulating themselves.  We already know this is ineffective because industry has had a voluntary program since 2007, and yet the signatories continue to market their junk food and drinks to children.

So we’ll keep up the good fight, armed with research and motivated by our care for kids’ health and removing industry interference from parents’ ability to do their job.  We invite all of Jamie’s Food Revolutionaries, in Canada and beyond, to join our cause!

About Rita Koutsodimos

Rita has worked to make communities healthier for over 15 years; in the last ten she has been the lead for advocacy and communications with the British Columbia Healthy Living Alliance. She lives on the Sunshine Coast of BC (which is as beautiful as it sounds) with her husband, Nick and two active boys, Laszlo and Tobias, who are energetic enough without sports drinks.