Peer Driven Junk Food Allure & What’s Cool to Kids

coffeecocoacream.jpg I wrote “Counter-Marketing via Joe Camel” long before my middle-schooler was being enticed to enjoy Frapuccinos for coolness caché, or max out her prepaid Jamba Juice card with Banana Berry fulfillment, so it’s interesting to see how peer buzz slides seamlessly through each age group.

Guess I should be thankful she hasn’t succumbed to the ‘Pink Star’ posse. That’s ‘off-the-menu’ ordering code for a smoothie concoction that “in the know” middle-schooler girls are ordering, which turns healthy fruit into drinkable sugar.

Could these marketing trends to kids get much more toxic? In a word, yes.

Next week I’ll be tackling the confusing claims made in marketing sports beverages, high voltage “energy” drinks, and caffeine repercussions to 8th grade middle schoolers in greater Marin while filming a media literacy session with none other than “Miss Nancy” (aka) Ruby Unger of Romper Room days!

“Do Be a Don’t Bee” and the magic mirror, remember? She’s been doing some incredible media work in the school systems, using film as an educational tool.

Catch Ruby’s computer animated Sneeze, How Germs Are Spread (in any language, this translates!) and read about her demos for kids on communicable disease and you’ll see why film, media, celebrities with a sense of humor and counter-marketing media mavens all mashup as a fun and formidable force.

Ruby’s show and tell teaching techniques have some crossover with Shaping Youth’s hands-on counter-marketing demos. We’re both using experiential, tactile formats along with film media spreading the word.

In fact, Shaping Youth is proud to receive a mini-grant from the S.F. Foundation to continue our media counter-marketing film work in the wellness arena.

We’ve adopted a ‘Title One’ school, Allen Elementary of San Bruno for an 8-week session on junk food allure, filming our hands-on “Dare to Compare: A Gross Out Game for Good Nutrition” beginning in January.

After attending the grantee program for recipients from all over the region Monday, every single school represented voiced that they have pre-packaged and peer driven junk food issues at lunchtime, despite new ‘wellness’ mandates.

One peek at this just released study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) shows the ‘imbalance’ of energy output for kids is even worse than we thought. sigh. Just ducky.

Overweight teens and junk food junkies are in for adult health problems if they keep eating this crud, and now it’s being positioned as a global economic issue.

Conversely, on a micro-scale at Allen Elementary, an equally disturbing twist takes place when 6th graders stop eating altogether, or ‘share a communal bag of chips’ for lunch.

Garbage in, garbage out; ‘it’s the content, stupid’ or whatever maxim you want to use, we need to counter-market to kids big time, before it impacts their young bodies.

Shaping Youth is jumping in with media life skills, intervention, and counter-marketing at the 5th grade level at Allen Elementary, but ‘balance and energy’ is simplistic without looking at socioeconomic access, ads, media, marketing and money.

Pediatricians have added their emphatic voice to the media mix blasting junk food ads aimed at kids too. (what took them so long to use the media to deliver this message?)

As I recently wrote on the Washington Post site about CARU guidelines, this is a responsibility and accountability issue FAR beyond “parents need to say no” in the junk food arena, and studies bear this out.

I’m not talking about ‘cranky cupcake party police,’ or über regulation. Common sense is key, but corporate profits and junk food merchandising should not be allowed to dominate over kids’ health and wellness.

Shaping Youth’s stance is that media, food marketing, and policy practices all need to work WITH parents together to turn this tanker around. This goes far beyond ‘just say no.’

Here’s a way to jumpstart your efforts with the Stir it Up campaign’s advocacy arm.

They’re doing vital work and this site is chock full of ways parents, schools and the food industry can team up for healthier messaging. Stir it Up is part of Parents Action for Children which cuts a wide swath in the policy arena.

Check out their short video clip with Rob Reiner, who has championed this movement from the get-go, tapping into other dedicated media celebs like Tom Hanks and Jamie Lee Curtis to spread the word. (Their org was formerly known as the “I Am Your Child Foundation.”)

In the nonprofit world, every little bit helps to achieve critical mass through distribution channels.

You may have noticed it’s a bit of a nonprofit carousel…Shaping Youth partners with Common Sense Media, who shares content with Stir it Up, which is part of the larger entity of partnering taking place at Parents Action for Children!

It’s the only way we’re going to achieve a massive media mindshift toward a healthier worldview for kids. And we all agree that’s where we need to be headed…

Shaping Youth is new on the scene, but we have alot to say about counter-marketing and media literacy to ensure the emotional and physical well-being of children. We’re even hoping to add a ‘support our blog’ button for sustainability soon! Stay tuned…



  1. This is a huge problem, kids being literally targeted in the media, without thought as to the long term cause and effect. It is this type of irresponsibility to society in the name of financial gain that must stop.

    This is also why NIH has created programs like Media Smart Youth (which we are implementing presently in Fairfax County. This program actually educates kids on the very subject of commercial claims, so that they can learn to make informed decisions.

    Additionally, the International Youth Conditioning Association is educating Youth Fitness Professionals around the world to combat this problem with truth and by engaging kids in healthy habits through example, training, and education.

    Let’s start working on solutions that make sense. Anyone interested? Contact me at

  2. Hi Dr. Brown…I just left a few notes for you on your blog and a links list of much of our research along these lines…

    I like the Media Smart Youth program but feedback among educators I shared it with in our own programs found the large binder sized NIH materials far too cumbersome…Still, I personally like what they have to offer and the price is right! (free folks!)

    That said, it’s one of our goals here (to translate our media literacy games into ‘train the trainer’ free, open source digital downloads for all to use) as soon as we get some underwriting on a larger scale…

    I’ll be anxious to hear how it goes in Fairfax County! I used to live there long ago, (went to Holmes Interm & TJ High for 9th!) plus plenty of time in Alexandria and D.C.—I’d be VERY interested in teaming with you to make our vision a reality…(faster!)

    I’ve been dodging branded alliances so far, and have shifted our rev gen model to an open source one, as we’ve had friends as far away as Africa ask us to PLEASE keep our programs accessible, as we’re literally exporting our vices abroad! Kids are being impacted in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and even the remote village regions with media/marketing that’s pulling away from indigenous local/healthy food and sending damaging ‘coolness cues’ about consumption of processed drek.

    We’re experimenting with some ‘virtual nutrition’ programs coming up too…as I feel the internet has the ability to scale some of our messaging both from a media literacy standpoint and a nutritional one!

    Thanks for taking the time to comment! Touch base anytime with me, e-mail is amy at shapingyouth dot org!

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