Food purchasing marketing messages in children's movies and series: How parents can influence the effects


Children's audiovisual media productions often depict unhealthy foods, which can lead children to develop strong food purchasing desires or to want to consume unhealthy foods. This study clarifies on how media consumption and parent-child communication relate to this effect.

Article by Adriana Sofia Palloks (✉

A two-wave panel study with 529 children (aged six to eleven years) and one of their parents (529 individuals) was conducted to examine the influence of children's audiovisual media consumption on media-motivated food purchase requests among children. At an interval of six months, two rounds of interviews were conducted with the participants. The factors determined were frequency of media consumption, age, children's BMI, and parents' communication style in dealing with food depictions in children's films and series. The children's answers were compared with the parents' questionnaire material and evaluated accordingly.

In modern audiovisual media, children are often confronted with an endless stream of food advertising, showing meals and foods with high levels of salt, fat, or sugar. These placements are no coincidence, but part of marketing strategies to mobilize the consumer power of children. It is therefore not surprising that the young audience, inspired by their own media consumption, expresses food purchase requests to their own parents. During so-called "pestering", children repeatedly try to persuade their parents to buy specific products they have seen on TV.

The portrayal of unhealthy foods in media formats has already demonstrated an influence on media-motivated food purchase requests as well as unhealthy eating habits among children in previous studies. However, little is known about the factors that are associated to children's media-motivated food purchase requests and how these requests can be specifically minimized.

Children and their parents participated in the study

In a two-wave panel study, communication scientists Alice Binder and Jörg Matthes from the University of Vienna interviewed children between the ages of six and eleven (N = 529) and one of their parents (N = 529) at two times; there was a period of six months between the interviews. The aim was to determine and track the development of media-motivated food purchase requests over time based on the factors of media consumption frequency, age, BMI (body mass index: formally used to assess body weight), and parents' restrictive or conversation-oriented communication style about foods depicted in the children's media.

Participants were selected from twelve Austrian primary schools – with the consent of their parents – and asked about their media consumption (series and films) at both survey rounds (March to May and September to November 2019); their age and BMI were also collected after the survey. Participating parents completed a questionnaire at both time points with questions about their children's media consumption, detailing how often and in what ways they would talk to their children about food presented in the media.

High media consumption does not automatically generate media-motivated food purchase requests among children

"Our study shows that the frequency with which children ask for foods they have seen in audiovisual media is not related to the extent of their use", explains study author Alice Binder. The study authors speculate that it must be less the time spent watching media and more the type of media they are consuming that determines the impact on media-motivated food purchase requests. The types of media children use (and how they affect the respective purchase requests) are thus to be studied in future research.

Testing age and BMI

Combining the data from the two interviewing periods, the researchers found that children's media-motivated food purchase requests decreased with increasing age. The younger the children, the more susceptible they seemed to be to food marketing messages. BMI score proved to be a positive predictor of media-motivated food purchase requests (i.e., higher BMI was associated with more media-motivated food purchase requests).

Parents' communication style both decisive for and against "pestering"

"Certain communication styles, however, can lead to 'pestering' for these foods", Binder warns. "Surprisingly, the study showed that when parents point out or even talk about the foods [i.e., engage in conversation-oriented communication about foods portrayed in the media], this can lead to more pestering" she adds. According to the findings, attempting to make children aware of or educate them about marketing-based food messages is insufficient to shield children from the pestering effect.

Lastly, Binder holds that "banning certain media content may contribute to less pestering." The two authors state that the persuasiveness of food messages in audiovisual media is extremely high and parental restrictions can help reduce the impact of exposure to unhealthy foods in the media, though perhaps unable to enhance children's cognitive understanding of persuasive food ads.

The headmasters of the schools and the ethics committee of the University of Vienna approved the study. From each child, verbal consent to participate in the study was obtained, as well as written consent from the parents.

Publication details

Binder, A., & Matthes, J. (2023). What can stop the "pester power"? A longitudinal study on the impact of children's audiovisual media consumption on media-motivated food purchase requests. Pediatric Obesity, 18(6), e13018. doi:10.1111/ijpo.13018

Alice Binder is a Senior Scientist at the Department of Communication of the University.


Jörg Matthes is Professor of Communication and Vice-Chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna.