Give in to pester power at the supermarket checkout? You’re not alone

Nearly three-quarters of the parents said they were pestered by their children into buying food. EPA Sam Stephenson

While we think of junk food marketing as something that happens during television commercial breaks or on massive billboard signs, supermarkets are yet another advertising frontier for food companies.

There are myriad techniques that entice shoppers and appeal to children when visiting the supermarket: promotional signs at eye level, confectionery within easy reach at the checkout, and colourful packages with cute characters and movie tie-ins. And it’s usually well-known food companies with big advertising budgets that can afford to market this way.

Because these marketing techniques occur at the point of sale, there’s a much stronger chance they’ll lead to a successful sale than if a child sees an advertisement for junk food in their own home.

Currently, almost a quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese, and a high proportion of them will grow up to be overweight or obese adults. Given that 63% of Australian adults are already overweight or obese, it’s alarming that future generations are heading into adulthood at a higher risk of developing obesity-related illnesses.

Fighting pester power

A study by Cancer Council NSW and the University of Newcastle, published in the journal Health Promotion International, confirms just how tough it is for parents to stand up to pester power.

Nearly three-quarters of the parents in the study said they were pestered by their children into buying food, and of those who were pestered, 70% gave in and bought at least one food item. Unsurprisingly, what they were most frequently pestered for were not healthy foods but chocolates and confectionery.

Food marketing is nothing new, but marketing techniques have become more sophisticated. We know that food marketing successfully influences children – their food preferences, the food they eat and which foods they pester their parents to buy.

The food industry has been very clever to use and create well-known characters to promote food products to children. Kids see these well-known cartoon characters and movie tie-ins on the TV screen at home and recognise the same character on a sugary drink or chocolate.

No parent wants to be the one receiving looks of disdain as their three-year-old throws a tantrum at the checkout when they’re not allowed a lollipop. Most just want to get on with their shopping as quickly as they can. So when they hear that small voice asking, nagging – and sometimes screaming – for something, it’s often easier to give in.

The government and supermarkets have a role to play in reducing pester power. Flickr/Rami

Winning the battle

Yes, parents are responsible for the healthy diet of their children. Parents can restrict the level of television their children watch, provide them with healthy food choices and make sure they get plenty of exercise. But all this good parenting is directly undermined by the efforts of advertisers.

Food companies have millions of dollars invested in advertising and in 2010, the Australian food industry spent more than $400 million on marketing, making it the seventh-largest advertising industry. Parents can only say no and battle against this for so long without giving in.

So, what can be done?

First, the government needs to support parents by stepping in and shielding children from excessive advertising. This cannot happen without stronger advertising regulations. Recent research from the Cancer Council NSW and the University of Sydney has shown that since the introduction of the current voluntary industry initiatives, we’ve seen little or no change to the amount of unhealthy foods being advertised.

The government has a responsibility to introduce new regulations that food advertisers must abide by and have meaningful sanctions applied should they breach them.

Second, supermarkets can play a role in supporting parents by creating an environment that doesn’t encourage and facilitate pester power. Supermarkets can make small changes such as introducing healthy foods at checkouts and removing confectionery and unhealthy food promotions that are especially appealing to children from the ends of aisles. This would help to reduce children’s desire to pester for these foods.

Supermarkets need to support those who support them – and this means helping parents to be the good guys in the pester power battle.

This article was co-authored by Sarah Campbell from the University of Newcastle’s School of Psychology.