Getting Real About Candy And Obesity
By Brady Darvin,
Senior Director-Consumer Insights, Strottman International Inc.
How can the candy industry best address today’s growing obesity epidemic? Consider these insights from premium promotions agency Strottman International, and take a look at some real-world solutions to the “responsibility” question drawn from outside the candy category.

One would have to have been living in a cave for the past five years not to be aware of the dramatically increasing rates of obesity in both children and adults and the resulting media frenzy and consumer and government advocacy the issue has spawned — especially when it come to kids.
But how concerned should candy manufacturers, marketers and retailers be about this issue? How many times have you heard the following arguments — or even suggested them yourself?
• Candy is a treat, not a diet staple, and even kids know this.
• It’s up to parents to teach their kids how much candy is OK to eat.
• Confectioners have never tried to market their products with the goal of misleading consumers, so there’s really nothing they need to do differently.
Candy is never going to be looked upon as healthy, so there’s no point in changing the marketing messages or tactics the industry has used for decades.
The preceding statements sound reasonable, but they reflect a flawed approach to the issue of obesity.
Candy makers have remained relatively silent and passive about the obesity issue, continuing to believe that their industry is not responsible for solving this growing public health problem. It’s the same attitude that quick-service restaurants, packaged goods marketers, and children’s entertainment providers had a few years ago. The difference is that those industries have awakened from their responsibility-free dreams and have become proactive, inspirational forces of change (See sidebar, “How Quickly Things Change.”
Time to act
So what can the candy industry do? The answer is both simple and complex, but it boils down to this: Make an effort to communicate to consumers that your company is concerned about the growing obesity epidemic, and offer parents and their kids tools to help them deal with it. What kinds of tools should be offered? Consider the following recommendations.
Make portion control easy and fun. Create smaller package sizes. Re-purpose Halloween-sized “fun packs” for other channels and occasions. Develop more novelty dispensers or in-pack premiums that encourage kids to eat more slowly while leveraging the high perceived value of toy/novelty premiums to maintain margins on individual SKUs.
In the United Kingdom, Cadbury recently launched smaller, 100-calorie versions of some of its candy bars in conjunction with its support of the British candy industry’s “Be Treatwise” initiative to encourage healthier living (See http: // The company is finding that consumers will pay a premium to have portion control managed for them.
Leverage packaging and premiums to encourage activity. Innovative packages and in-pack or on-pack premiums can be designed to encourage physical activity while at the same time making products stand out on shelves and offering added value to consumers. For example, instead of a fin-sealed bag, why not a hard plastic canister with weighted ends designed to be kicked around a la the classic “Kick the Can” game to encourage kids to get active?
Another option: Instead of a static, plastic or plush cane-topper, how about creating a clickable exercise counter with a guide to fun exercises? Even better, use a product’s inherent characteristics to inspire premiums. For example, the design of bubble gum in super-long strips lends itself perfectly to a tape-measure-like dispenser with paper measuring tape that encourages kids to measure how far they can jump.
Communicate messages that promote activity. The simplest of all health messages for kids to understand is one of “Energy in. Energy out.” Encourage kids to burn off those calories from treats, and let moms know that you care about the well-being of their children by promoting physical activity on packages and in advertising. Such messages can be communicated overtly or subtly. For a direct approach, consider taking advantage of free messaging guidelines like those that Strottman helped develop for non-profit group The Ad Council (see http: //, or from the National Confectioners Association (see For a more subtle approach, consider how you might change or add to package or store display graphics to show kids being active.
The responsibility question
What then does becoming more “responsible” mean for confectioners? Becoming more responsible does not mean accepting blame as the cause of the obesity epidemic. Instead, it means taking action in order to become part of the solution.
To do that, it’s important to develop an understanding of the kinds of wellness messages that resonate most with kids and parents.
Extensive research by Strottman and The Ad Council has demonstrated that the following approaches are key to successful wellness messaging.
Be direct. Place messages directly into the context of food and/or exercise and activity.
Be clear. Messages that are vague, indirect or leave anything to the imagination are confusing and therefore miss the mark.
Be positive, not preachy. Positive messages are those that moms and kids perceive as telling them not just what to do, but how to do it. They are solution-oriented and communicate the concepts of balance and moderation.
Negative messages are those that are perceived as passive, vague, accusatory, condescending or scientific-sounding.
At Strottman, we frequently talk to consumers directly through our proprietary consumer panels of “Kid Engineers” and “Gatekeeper” moms. Recently, Strottman talked to some groups of moms about the controversy surrounding food marketing targeted at kids in general, as well as their feelings towards candy specifically.  
Not surprisingly, all of the moms admitted to frequently using candy and other sweet treats as a form of bribery and control.
Another big concern for moms when it comes to candy is their fear of being negatively judged by other moms.
In general, the Gen X-aged moms  with whom Strottman talked clearly felt that the overwhelming majority of the burden of ensuring that their kids are eating healthfully lay on themselves as parents, but they also said they would enthusiastically welcome any help marketers and retailers could give them.
Anyone who has been following media coverage of youth obesity trends the last few years may find this mea culpa attitude from moms surprising. Advocacy groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, government officials like Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, and even scientific bodies like the American Psychological Association place blame squarely on food marketers, calling for strict limitations on food advertising and other marketing efforts directed at kids.
Learning from experience
What lessons and conclusions should candy makers take away from the actions other categories are taking to address current obesity trends?
Old paradigms regarding what product categories can inspire healthy behavior have been shattered. Industries that a few years ago seemed stereotyped as only contributing to the cause of obesity are now demonstrating that they can be part of the solution.
Contrary to what the most vocal anti-kids’ marketing advocates are saying, parents want to take responsibility for their kids’ wellness themselves, but they also want help from marketers.
Brands such as McDonald’s, Kraft and Nickelodeon have stepped up, taken a stand and begun positioning themselves as responsible corporate citizens. In contrast, candy makers, marketers, and retailers that have not yet proactively taken steps to find their role in helping to combat the growing obesity epidemic are setting themselves up to be the next target of overzealous government officials and advocacy groups. But even more importantly, the confections industry is missing a great opportunity to introduce a whole new sub-category of better-for-you confections through portion-controlled packaging and labeling, in-pack premiums or novelties that encourage physical activity, and responsible messages that communicate in a simple way the importance of balancing occasional sweet treats with an overall healthy diet and lifestyle.
About the Author
Brady Darvin is the Senior Director of Consumer Insights for Strottman International, Inc., which specializes in youth- and family-targeted custom premium promotions. He has provided consumer and industry insights to clients such as Arby’s, Chick-fil-A, Quiznos, The Ad Council, Best Buy, Sprint, and Disney. Mr. Darvin has been acknowledged as an expert in the field of how the childhood obesity epidemic is changing the way foods and beverages are marketed to kids. He may be contacted at
How Quickly Things Change
Old Paradigms   Today’s Realities
Fast food isn’t healthy, and everyone knows it. It’s not as if McDonald’s is going to become an advocate for healthy eating and exercise, or that fast food is ever going to be healthy. After all, it’s fast food, what do people expect?
In June 2004, McDonald’s introduced Apple Dippers as an alternative to fries in Happy Meals, and in May 2005 they introduced an entire advertising and promotional campaign with the tagline, “It’s what I eat and what I do,” that centered around exercise, a balanced diet and healthy choices.
The result? McDonald’s stock price is up more than 130 percent since its low point three years ago. It is now the nation’s largest purchaser of apples, and in some regions like Southern California, almost 20 percent of Happy Meals are sold with apples instead of fries.
Kids watch a lot of cartoons on television and play a lot of video games. The fact is that networks like Nickelodeon are just not ever going to say, “Hey kids, turn off the TV and go out and play.”  Kids just don’t jump around in front of the TV — they sit and they watch, and if we want them to exercise, the TV just has to be turned off.
In the summer of 2003, Nickelodeon did the unthinkable: It told kids to turn off the television and go outside and play! The campaign, called “Let’s Just Play,” climaxed in October 2004 when Nick blacked out its own network for an entire afternoon and sponsored over 650 outdoor events in communities nationwide.
The “Let’s Just Play” program just completed its third year, and Nick plans to continue it.
Nutrition Facts panels on packaged goods provide consumers with all the information they need to determine if the food is healthy and to advise on proper serving sizes.
In July 2004 Kraft Foods debuted a new Nabisco line called 100 Calorie Packs. Each box contained separate miniature bags of kids’ (and adults’) favorite cookie and cracker brands in 100-calorie portions. The cost per ounce was double or even triple that of multiple-serving packages. Critics were quick to predict the demise of the line, saying consumers wouldn’t pay such a premium just for pre-sized portions.
In its first full year on the market, the 100 Calorie Packs line had sales of $107 million. In the U.K. early this year, Cadbury became the first confectioner to introduce and promote 100 calorie portions.