Is different marketing the key to cutting childhood tooth decay?


  Posted by: Dental Design      8th May 2020

Cleverly thought-out marketing is everywhere. Indeed, visit the local supermarket and you’ll instantly be assaulted by happy characters leering down from cereal boxes, see bright, eye-catching colours adorning packets of sugary snacks and read fun slogans decorating packets.

Of course, this is the point. Effective marketing of products is all about knowing how to make them appeal to target audiences, and this is why sweets, sugary cereals, crisps and other unhealthy snacks are made to stand out from the shelves in a way that appeals to children.

When research tested what colours certain age groups are drawn to, it found that young children are especially attracted to bright, vibrant colours. This is thought to be because bright colours are easier to differentiate from one another than more muted shades such as pastels.[i] As children use colour as a fundamental way to understand their surrounding environment, it makes sense that bold colours that give a definite sense of form and object are likely to appeal. This preference for vibrancy continues throughout childhood, and it is namely this that has made these bright colours such a mainstay in toy designs, children’s clothing and food and drinks aimed towards this market.

Often, food and drinks aimed at young children take advertising a step further by creating a mascot or cartoon character as another way to appeal to this younger audience. You’ll be hard pressed to find children who don’t find cartoons irresistible to watch, and much of this could be due to the fact that the colours in these shows are often bright and vibrant. There’s also something to be said about forming a familiarity with characters. Children will inevitably love some characters almost to obsession (which every parent who has suffered through hundreds of episodes of Peppa Pig will be aware of) and this is thought to be because these characters appeal to children on a level that is often inconceivable to adults.

Usually, these characters and story lines are the product of years of research into what makes young children’s brains tick. Indeed, one article on the BBC that explored the fascination children have with programmes that adults find strange, nonsensical or even slightly creepy, suggested it was simply because infants and young children process information differently. In this article, a programme called Moon and Me comes under scrutiny – a strange, hypnotic programme that for all intents and purposes is bamboozling to an adult viewer. However, this programme entrances children as it appeals to them on a visual and information level that adults don’t respond to in the same way.[ii]

Of course, when it comes to food or drink packaging, a cartoon character is static so it’s not quite the same thing. But adverts that use these mascots are often on television between cartoons, and children are likely to make the link between the moving character and the still version on a cereal box, for example.

So, if these foods and drinks are so heavily marketed towards children in this manner, could we make a difference by changing the way they look in an effort to help improve oral health?

Supermarket giant Lidl has recently announced that it is going to remove cartoon characters from own brand cereal boxes in an attempt to make them less appealing. Stating the move is to lessen the effect of “pester power” (when children beg for something they want) this is a step towards encouraging parents/guardians to make healthier choices when shopping.[iii] Although stated as an effort to help reduce childhood obesity rates, this inevitably will help prevent childhood tooth decay too, as sugar is one of the driving forces behind both of these issues.

But will this make a difference? I’m on the fence about this. On one hand, it’s great that retail giants are trying to change things by implementing this in the first place. However, we have to realise that Lidl is only removing mascots from their own brand cereals, meaning that all other brands are perfectly able to keep luring children’s attention with whimsical giraffes and other fun characters. Furthermore, we have to also recognise that this is just a drop in the ocean when it comes to unhealthy foods – yes, cereals are especially bad for sugar content, but what about sweets and fruit juices and other ridiculously sugary consumables?

In the end, it’s a positive change and if it does have a significant impact then we should definitely urge companies to start thinking of more neutral packaging for foods. However, these companies are definitely under no obligation to do so, and if the advertising is working and drawing in the money, why would they change? What it needs to come down to is more regulations about how unhealthy food can be marketed. Who knows whether this is achievable – but it is definitely something to bear in mind for the future.


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[i] Sciencing. How Do Bright Colours Appeal to Kids? Link: [Last accessed February 2020].

[ii] BBC Future. What’s So Fascinating About Weird Children’s TV Shows? Link: [Last accessed February 2020].

[iii] The Guardian. Childhood Obesity: Lidl to Remove Cartoon Characters from Cereal Boxes. Link: [Last accessed February 2020].

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