Marketing obesity: from childhood sweets to chronic ill health among adults

By: Brendon Feliciano

It’s the middle of summer in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The blazing heat peaks at a sweltering 104 degrees. I take a break from work and see a group of young children sheltering from the sun under a tree. They seem happy drinking from patterned red cans and eating candies from a colorful bag. I take a few deep breaths while pulling out my phone to watch a YouTube video before heading back to work. As I open my first video, I’m greeted with a very clever advertisement for a new candy: Airheads Xtremes.

Like giving candy to children

Companies have become increasingly adept at targeting their advertisements to specific customers – particularly, young children. They know children love the flashing colors and comical nature of their marketing campaigns, consequently nagging their parents to buy their products.

The American Psychological Association (APA) notes that advertising directly to children is extremely influential. In a position statement, the APA states: “a high percentage of advertisements targeting children feature candy, fast foods, and snacks. . . .  [E]xposure to such advertising increases consumption of these products.”

The childhood obesity epidemic

In my opinion, this is a worrisome practice that is feeding the childhood obesity epidemic. Not only are the advertisements themselves predatory, but they are playing into children’s impressionable nature, which is outright dangerous. By studying TV and YouTube use patterns, advertisers can accurately calculate ways to maximize exposure of their products to children.

Approximately 18.5% of children in the United States are obese. Put another way, nearly 1 in 5 children in the U.S. meet the criterion for obesity: a body mass index at or above the 95th percentile for sex and age. We know that obesity, especially at a young age, carries many associated long-term risks and ailments.

Long-term health effects of childhood obesity

Besides cardiovascular disease and diabetes, obesity causes long-term damage to the knee joints. Studies show, for example, a direct relationship between obesity and chronic stress on the patellofemoral joint in the knee – the place where the kneecap meets the long bone in the lower leg. Because of this ongoing stress, children grow into adults who suffer from chronic knee pain as well as buckling and deterioration of knee cartilage, ailments that often require joint replacement.

The most recent data show that nearly 40% of U.S. adults are obese. As children grow into adults, ongoing knee discomfort may keep some working or even getting out of bed in the morning. Depression from limited mobility and chronic pain is a serious risk, causing some to self-medicate with alcohol, opioids or illicit drugs. Some die by suicide. Children that suffer from obesity are especially susceptible to anxiety and depression, often because their peers bully them in school.

Let’s stop the predators

Stronger action must be taken to stop the predatory behavior of companies that strategically exploit the immaturity of children in order to boost product sales. Legislative policies can limit “channel targeting” that large companies use to distribute their messages. Furthermore, parents should be educated on how to block TV channels and websites that continue to push junk food products to children. Such steps won’t eliminate childhood obesity, but they could be helpful in putting American kids on the road to better health.


Brendon FelicianoBrendon Feliciano is a National Hispanic Scholar majoring in pre-medicine at The University of Tulsa. He’s currently in his junior year. Aside from studying, he spends his time volunteering at his church, cooking, ice skating and exercising.