“They were saying it was delicious”: Very young children’s understanding of food advertising

Tatlow-Golden, M.; Twiner, A.; Hollywood, L.; Hennessy, E. and Dean, M. (2018). “They were saying it was delicious”: Very young children’s understanding of food advertising. In: 2nd Digital Health and Wellbeing Conference, 1-3 May 2018, Open University, Milton Keynes.


YouTube is rising to become one of the most widely used media by children today with the 2017 Media Uses and Attitudes Ofcom report indicating that half of children in the UK aged 3-4 years and over eight of ten children and young people aged 5 to 15 years using this platform. In digital media, children are widely exposed to advertising but the effects of this on their health and well-being have rarely been explored. Yet strong evidence exists for effects of broadcast marketing communications on children’s food preferences and choices. Also largely unexplored is very young children’s understanding of food advertising, although studies demonstrate that they become aware of food brands from at least the age of 3 years. In a changing media landscape, and in the context of high rates of overweight and obesity among children and young people with consequences for their physical and mental well-being, these gaps in knowledge are a concern. This study explored children’s responses to advertisements for four food and drink brands hosted on YouTube. In individual interviews, 143 children (3-5 years) viewed the advertisements for a chocolate-flavoured cereal, ice cream, frozen chips and a smoothie. The ads varied in pace and narrative structure and in the extent to which they could be considered to be aimed at children, with the ads for chips and smoothie more adult-focused. Semi-structured individual interviews and mixed methods analyses explored children’s liking of advertisements and understanding of the content they had viewed. No more than one in ten children was able to repeat any of an ad’s voiceover content. Yet up to nine out of ten children said they liked each of the advertisements; described some narrative content from the ad; and identified at least some of the food items featured. Findings indicate that children aged 3 to 5 years respond positively to and can absorb the content of substantial amounts of food-related content in YouTube/TV food advertising. This paper will conclude by discussing implications for children’s learning from digital screen media and with implications for policy makers, regulators and those concerned about childhood obesity.

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