Children are vulnerable to advertising targeted at them because they are unable to recognize the commercial goals of marketing. They actually only understand the nature of advertising at the pre-teen stage, namely at around the ages of 11-12. Prior to that age, their cognitive development prevents them from detecting the persuasive intentions of advertisers and to use critical thinking, which makes them vulnerable to the different strategies used on them. Research shows a link between promotional activities of the food industry and the knowledge, attitude toward junk food, food preferences and eating behaviors of young people.

Since 1980, under section 248 of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), in Quebec, “no person may make use of commercial advertising directed at persons under thirteen years of age.” However, exceptions to the Act result in children not being fully protected from the consequences of the advertising directed to them.

Because of its obesity prevention and reduction mandate, the Weight Coalition reports the illegal exposure of Quebec youth food or drink advertising, and documents the advertising practices that persist due to exceptions to the application of sections 248 and 249. Over the past decade, the Weight Coalition has recorded and reported to the Office de la protection du consommateur several advertising practices that illegally target children, which has led to many convictions (appended).

In addition to these illegal practices, application exceptions, such as window displays, showcases and packaging, are still widely
used by retailers and food companies to target young people in different places, and cause repeated nagging of parents. Given the
persistence of advertising directed at children in Quebec, and the federal government’s intention to introduce legislation to regulate the advertising of unhealthy food to children, the Weight Coalition produced a status report of Quebec food retail businesses, restaurants, events and venues.

A review of food advertising to children in Quebec

Between the fall of 2018 and the spring of 2019, the Weight Coalition produced a qualitative portrait of food advertising targeting children in shops, restaurants, events and venues.

The work done by the Weight Coalition reveals that the food industry takes advantage of exceptions in the Quebec legislation to target children. 

To learn more on the Quebec law and the methodology used by the Weight Coalition for this work, please see the report A review of food advertising to children in Quebec.

You can also consult a summary report of our works.

A review of food advertising to children in Quebec in the Food Retail Sector

In the Quebec retail sector, since the windows, shelves, containers, packaging or labels are part of the exceptions, businesses circumvent the spirit of the law by directly targeting children under 13 years of age. 

Over a period of six months, the inventory identified 469 examples of food product packaging aimed at children, excluding gums, chocolates and candies (grocery stores, pharmacies and food retailers).

Key findings

  • 90% of the products identified are ultra-processed foods high in sugar, salt or fat;
  • More than half of all regular packages featured a brand character or a character popular among children, such as PAW Patrol, the Incredibles, the Minions or other Avengers or Disney characters;
  • Images alluding to magic, fantasy and adventure also appeared on 43% of the packages recorded;
  • Nearly 100 products use the foods-as-toys strategy. These foods are shaped like animals, letters or characters;
  • Many companies offer the same product in a wide range of varieties and packages, making it possible to take up more shelf space and maximizing the visibility of the packages. For example, the Weight Coalition identified 11kinds of Goldfish crackers and 15kinds of Bear Paws soft cookies;
  •  Many companies change their packaging several times per year, be it to celebrate a holiday, an event or a new movie. The Weight Coalition identified 73 packages designed especially for Halloween and Christmas;
  • Large companies in the food industry use display units to attract children’s attention. Most of the display units identified target children using childish characters, joyful images and bright colours to highlight the product;
  • The categories of products most advertised to children are snacks, cereals, dairy products, sugary drinks and frozen desserts.

To learn more and discover all the products and marketing practices noted, please consult the report Food advertising to children in the Food Retail Sector.

A review of food advertising to children in Quebec in Restaurants

Restaurants use several strategies to attract children’s attention and create a feeling of belonging and loyalty. Many use a marketing mix. These strategies help to make young consumers loyal to a brand, and it works: 93% of children aged to 5 recognize the McDonald’s logo even before they can read.

Between February and April 2019, a total of 20 restaurant chains and their websites were visited. Data was collected from at least one restaurant from each chain. Observation charts were created and completed for systematic information compilation.  Our observations focused on menu appearance, meal presentation and promotional signage (e.g., advertising posters including meals and any other product offered throughout the restaurant).

To learn more on the marketing practices observed in the restaurants, please see the report Food advertising to children at fast-food and family restaurants.

A review of food advertising to children at family venues and events

Children are exposed to advertising for foods high in sugar, salt and fat, some of which specifically targets them, at many family events and venues.

The Weight Coalition visited 24 venues and events in six different regions of Quebec. Whether at family festivals such as the Carnaval de Québec, ski hills, amusement parks such as La Ronde, or cinemas, a number of tactics were observed, such as the use of posters and sponsorships in areas regularly visited by children.

While cinemas and amusement parks are venues where children are heavily exposed to it, the situation has improved at family events.

Please see the report Food advertising to children at family venues and events to learn more on the marketing practices observed as well as the complaints made by the Weight Coalition to the Office de la protection du consommateur (OPC).

 

 

Even though Quebec children are partially protected, the Weight Coalition’s work show that the food industry takes advantage of the Quebec Law exceptions to target children.

An IPSOS survey carried for the Weight Coalition[1] account indicated that a large majority of Quebecois acknowledge that children in Quebec are exposed too much to publicity, packaging, showcases of junk food and therefore it should be regulate.

  • 86 % are in favor of federal government to regulate publicity in businesses targeted to kids under the age of 13;
  • 85 % feel that Quebec children are exposed to junk food publicity too much;
  • 84 % find that there is too much packaging and showcases of junk food in grocery stores and in food retail businesses;
  • 70 % express the wish to have access to cashier exempt of junk food when paying their purchases.

Advertising practices targeted to kids need to be regulate by a law. Many studies confirm that self-regulation has little impact to reduce children exposure and note that governmental intervention on food marketing is more likely to achieve the expected results.


[1] Omnibus Web réalisé par IPSOS, pour le compte de la Coalition Poids, du 11 au 15 mars 2019, auprès de 1 296 répondants résidents du Québec, francophone et anglophone âgés de 18 ans et plus.