Journal of Business Ethics (2010) 91:299–311
The Ethics of Food Advertising Targeted
Toward Children: Parental Viewpoint
ABSTRACT. The children’s market has become significantly more important to marketers in recent years. They have been spending increasing amounts on advertising,
particularly of food and beverages, to reach this segment.
At the same time, there is a critical debate among parents,
government agencies, and industry experts as to the ethics
of food advertising practices aimed toward children.
The present study examines parents’ ethical views of
food advertising targeting children. Findings indicate that
parents’ beliefs concerning at least some dimensions of
moral intensity are significantly related to their ethical
judgments and behavioral intentions of food advertising
targeting children as well as the perceived moral intensity
of the situation.
KEY WORDS: parents, children, ethics, food advertising
The children’s market has become signiﬁcantly
important to marketers (McNeal, 1998). Many marketers spend millions of dollars on advertising to reach this growing segment (Jardine and Wentz, 2005).
More speciﬁcally, food and beverage companies in the
USA spend an estimated US $10–12 billion targeting
children and adolescents (McKay, 2005). According
to the Kaiser Family Foundation, children are exposed
to more than 7,600 commercials on candy, cereal, and
fast food in any given year (Kotz, 2007).
The effects of advertising on children have been
highly debated among various groups, including parents, researchers, industry experts, and government agencies. One of the primary debates has been the
potential impact of food advertising directed at children. A variety of institutions are involved in this debate. Some of these organizations such as public
advocacy groups criticize the food companies and
television networks concerning the increased amounts
spent as well as the types of promotional efforts targeted
Scott J. Vitell
at children (York, 2007). Furthermore, statistics provide substantial concern about obesity, showing that approximately 50% of elementary-school children and
80% of teenagers will battle obesity during their lifetime.
There is also debate among practitioners on
advertising practices directed at children, with even
marketing professionals indicating concern about
advertising targeted at children. When interviewed,
35% of them consider the general ethical and moral
standards in the industry to be ‘‘lower than in the
past,’’ with 40% believing that these standards are
about the same (Grimm, 2004). Thus, only 25%
believe the standards are improved.
Some companies have already started taking
actions to deal with criticisms and even with government warning. In Europe, soft-drink companies have developed self-regulatory measures to stop
advertising junk food and to help tackle child
obesity. To avoid stricter laws, soft-drink companies
have pledged to stop marketing towards children
under 12 years old. The companies also have
pledged to limit soft-drink sales at schools (Wentz,
2005). Other countries in Europe, however, have
been taking an even stricter stance on regulations;
for example, starting in 2005, Ireland introduced a
ban on celebrities who appear in food and beverages targeted at children (Jardine and Wentz, 2004). Furthermore, some companies have also responded
to government calls by promoting active lifestyles
when targeting children in food ads. McDonald’s, in
the UK, ran a campaign that featured Ronald
McDonald and used animated fruit and vegetable
characters which were called Yums. These characters
urged children to eat right and stay active (Jardine
and Wentz, 2004).
Given all these statistics showing the potential
impact of food advertising targeting children, parents
Aysen Bakir and Scott J. Vitell
are concerned over whether or not...