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Food and Corporate Discourses

2012 May 29
by smith5ma

It is interesting to take a step back from our normal lives and start to notice every advertisement and promotional gimmick that we buy into on a daily basis. Coke-a-cola and Pepsi are constantly fighting each other for the front of supermarkets and beer companies compete with each other by who has the most fun commercials. Deborah Thompson, from Food as Communication, chose to study the marketing techniques of cereal brands, specifically General Mills cereal. We have learned in previous communication classes that children are some of the most easily persuaded people, so cereal brands such as Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, Trix, and other sugar filled brands use this to their advantage. Using free toys in the boxes or games on the back of the boxes can easily cause a child to want one brand over the other. To them, the taste is not the most important. What is important are the online games that they can play using the codes on the box, etc…

Thompson writes, “Online food advergaming functions symbolically as a communicative and persuasive practice, one rich with codes of meaning surrounding the food item, which in game becomes “much more than mere sustenance”” (Food as Communication, 2011). The interactive component to  parts of the food industry have become more of a customer attraction than the quality of the food. I remember being young and wanting to go to McDonald’s for a happy meal because I wanted the toy that came with it. I wasn’t interested in eating the food as much as I was in collecting the set of figurines. The corporate part of the food industry is smart and knows how to convince children they NEED this free toy, or whatever it is giving away.

I found an article by Muller, B. (2007), who researched how food being marketed towards children is causing their inevitable obesity. “As consumers…we expect that promotional materials on behalf of these products are neither false nor misleading. But, increasingly, we expect marketers to go beyond this – to additionally take on responsibility for our consumption behaviour.” This raises an interesting point. Companies can market their food as desirable as possible, but it is ultimately up to the consumer whether to buy into it or not. In Morgan Spurlock’s “Supersize Me”, he showed the health complications that come with choosing the Supersize option rather than the small, but the Supersize option was actually a smart move financially for McDonald’s because they made more money off their customers by making them believe that they were actually saving. It becomes an ethical battle for companies to choose the healthy route or the most profitable one.


Mueller, B. ” Just where does corporate responsibility end and consumer responsibility begin? The case of marketing food to kids around the globe”. International Journal of Advertising. (2007) pp. 561-564.

Food For Thought:

1. Who do you think is at fault for the consumption of unhealthy food, the consumers or the corporations?

2. Do you have memories, either from your childhood or now, when you chose a certain brand based on a marketing scheme?

3. How does the corporate monopoly of food supply affect the types of food that we eat on a daily basis?





17 Responses leave one →
  1. tamulida permalink
    May 29, 2012

    I found Thomson’s essay, “Play with your food: The performativity of online breakfast cereal marketing very interesting. It reminded me of all the cereal’s I used to love eating as a kid. If some of my favorite cereals like froot loops or cinnamon toast crunch were healthy for me, I would probably still be eating them for breakfast. Although, I will admit, sometimes I do crave a big bowl of froot loops every now and again. I do agree that children are easily persuaded by cereal marketers including free toys or games in each box of cereal. Although, I feel that the consumers are at fault for the consumption of unhealthy food. Yes, the corporations do a great job of marketing that is persuading to most people, but it is the consumer who has the choice to buy it and eat what they want. As the consumer, I believe it is there fault because they could choose to eat healthy, nutritious options. When I was growing up, I remember being drawn to all the fun prizes found in cereal boxes. My parents were good about letting my sister and I choose our favorite cereals, but we had to eat them in moderation. I parents would let us eat lucky charms or cinnamon toast crunch a few times a week but they would switch it out with a healthy cereal like honey nut cheerios, or plain cheerios and sometimes oatmeal. As long as my sister and I were getting our free toys once a week from our favorite cereal boxes, we did not complain much about what we ate for breakfast. The corporate monopoly of food supply has become a rising issue that affects the types of food we eat on a regular basis. Many Americans choose unhealthy food options not just because they enjoy the taste, it’s because it is affordable. Also, many Americans have been surrounded by fast foods growing up, and are raised on processed and fried foods that it is their nature, it is what they know and as a result, they choose to eat it. This has been an ongoing issue and many Americans are suffering from obesity.

    • Emma Hubbard permalink
      May 29, 2012

      In response to tamulida’s comment:

      I also found Thomson’s article on online breakfast cereal marketing to be very interesting. I agree with you that children are easily persuaded by cereal marketers because of the free toys or games in each box of cereal. Although I think corporations are more responsible for for the consumption of healthy food, I think you made a good point about the consumers being at fault. It is the consumer who has the choice of what foods to buy and what foods to eat. Consumers can choose to eat healthy and nutritious foods. However, I believe parents should be held responsible rather than children. Children are consumers, but I do not think they have enough knowledge or experience to know what kinds of foods are healthy and nutritious. If their parents constantly buy cereals such as Froot Loops, children may find the marketing of the product to be appealing (games and prizes are featured on the box), and they may have any idea that this kind of breakfast is not healthy.

      I agree with you that many Americans choose unhealthy food options not only because they enjoy the taste, but because it is affordable. Fast food is a very quick and cheap way to eat a meal. I also agree that many Americans were surrounded by fast foods growing up, and are raised on processed and fried foods. I think that if parents were raised this way, this may be the way they have always made food choices, and it can cause them to make similar food choices for their children. I believe corporations are at fault for unhealthy food choices because of the way they market their products in hopes of persuading the public, but I can understand the point you are making that the consumers are the ones that are ultimately choosing what kind of food to purchase and consume.

      The example you gave about the cereals you had as a child was good. It showed that it is okay to eat cereals such as Froot Loops and Cinnamon Toast Crunch as long as it is in moderation. Substituting these cereals a few days a week for more nutritious cereals such as Cheerios is a great idea.

      I also think you made a good point by saying the corporate monopoly of food supply has become a rising issue that affects the types of food we eat on a regular basis. Many people view advertisements and commercials, and are greatly influenced by the marketing of food products. I agree that this has been an ongoing issue, and many Americans are suffering from obesity.

      • scalesaj permalink
        June 1, 2012

        I think that you both make a good point that responsibility lies on both the consumer to be a smart shopper and the corporations to not make that to difficult. I feel trying to shoulder the weight of this responsibility by both the corporations and people will not work. Either we need to have heavy regulations on businesses to make the healthy choices seem more enticing, or consumers are going to have to understand that they take 100% control of their health and diet. Optimally this responsibility would be both parties, but I feel like that is the way we do things now and it is not creating a healthier America, or a better informed one.

    • gilliakl permalink
      June 1, 2012

      In response to tamulida:

      I also found Thomson’s essay, “Play with your food: The performativity of online breakfast cereal marketing to be very interesting. This article reminded me so much of my childhood and going to the grocery store with my mother when I was younger. I remember fondly that my mother would always let me pick out the cereal when we go to the cereal isle. Reflecting on it now, and even as a child, I know that I did not pick out the cereal based to on the nutritional value of it. I based my pick on previous commercials that I saw on television as well as the prizes that could receive. Also, I found it very interesting that the author mentioned the use of video games to sale cereal in the present day. I can recall times where my sister would log in on line with the special website on the back of a Fruit-Loops box and she would play for hours. I found this essay to be very intriguing and it makes me think about my food choices.

    • Josie Warren permalink
      June 25, 2012

      In response to tamulida’s comment, I also agree that children are easily persuaded by certain marketers that add toys to unhealthy food. But the blame for eating unhealthy food still resides in the parents of those children, not the corporation. Children don’t have the capability of knowing what is or isn’t healthy; they’re too young. It’s up to the parents to teach them these things. Remember the happy meals that sold mini beanie babies at McDonald’s? Definitely a smart move on McDonald’s part, as beanie babies at that time were insanely popular. So, by taking a toy that all kids are seeming to collect at that time and making it “mini” will sell a ton more happy meals. In most collections, there are probably only about 12 toys to buy in order to reach a complete collection. However, with beanie babies, there are billions of different kinds of beanie babies and in a sense your collection is never complete. Picking this certain toy collection made McDonald’s a ton of money, but was promoting unhealthy eating behavior for children. However, still in this case, it is ultimately the parent’s decision to take their kid to McDonald’s, not the corporation’s decision. So, therefore, it is still the consumer’s fault that unhealthy eating behavior is taking place.

  2. Emma Hubbard permalink
    May 29, 2012

    In Singer’s article, “The corporate colonization of communication about global hunger: Development, biotechnology, and discursive closure in the Monsanto pledge,” he discusses corporate power. Corporate social responsibility has become an institution in the U.S. agricultural industry and global economy. Singer completes a case analysis of Monsanto, which is a U.S. based multinational firm that is currently holding sway over the global biotechnology market. He focuses on genetic modification. The World Health Organization supports the use of genetic modification seed to fight global hunger and poverty. However, additional research must be done in order to determine any possible long-term risks of genetically modified crops. The Monsanto pledge makes it known that its corporate social responsibility reporting is driven by an interest in advancing dialogue and communication with stakeholders. Corporations such as Monsanto should show how their local programs promote real and truthful accountability for possible risks and the livelihood of communities that are poor and undernourished.

    Thomson, the author of “Play with your food: The performativity of online breakfast cereal marketing,” focuses on the ways in which companies advertise their cereal brands to the public, especially to children. Many cereal boxes such as a Froot Loops box have puzzles and games on the back of the box. Thomson talks about the puzzles and codes that are displayed in order to catch the eye of the consumer. The prize was to “boost game experience at” Thomson says, “But to view this encounter from the perspective of the child advocate, such marketing is highly problematic, particularly during what has been described as an epidemic childhood obesity.” This kind of marketing draws in children who are interested in interactive games and prizes. I agree that the interactive component to parts of the food industry have become more of a customer attraction than the quality of the food. Children will pay more attention to what is found on a cereal box (the games, puzzles, and prizes) rather than the actual quality of the cereal.

    Online cereal marketing is an example of a “toxic environment.” It produces consumptive desire and a sedentary body. Children simply need to click a mouse or press a key to perform at high levels in the cereal marketing games. This type of marketing can be linked to the rise in childhood obesity.

    I believe the corporations are at fault for the consumption of unhealthy food. Children are young, and their brains are not fully developed. If a child sees an advertisement that uses cartoon characters, bright colors, and has prizes, toys, or games to play, this will be more visually appealing to them, and they will therefore want the product. Children may not realize that corporations are trying to use persuasive methods in order to make a higher profit. Children are also not capable of fully understanding what the ingredients and caloric values on the box represent or mean for their health. I have memories as a child, when I chose a certain brand based on a marketing scheme. McDonalds used to provide small Beanie Babies that came with the purchase of a happy meal. Everyone seemed to be collecting Beanie Babies, and I wanted to have as many as possible. I would ask my parents quite frequently if we could go to McDonalds, but it was the toy that I wanted, not the food that comes in a happy meal.

    The corporate monopoly of food supply affects the types of food that we eat on a daily basis. There are many different types of media, and in today’s society, many people look to the media to learn about the newest food trends, what’s healthy and what’s not, etc. The way in which corporations market their products influences what food choices we make. For instance, cereal brands market their products by providing fun and interactive games and prizes for children. Also, many corporations use celebrities and athletes to promote their products in advertisements and commercials, which can influence viewers to purchase or eat these food products.

    • tamulida permalink
      May 30, 2012

      In response to Emma Hubbard’s Comment

      You make some valid points in your post. There has been a lot of research done that shows how marketing food products can lead to severe signs of obesity in children. I agree that children are attracted to cartoon characters, bright colors, prizes, toys and games seen in advertisements, and as a result of this, children want the product that is being marketed. I believe that children do not fully understand the messages that marketers are selling. I have read articles on media literacy and how children are not aware of the persuasive methods being conveyed in television advertisements or even in films for that matter. There have been studies done where researchers are implementing a media literacy intervention to teach children how to better comprehend these media messages.

    • brubakra permalink
      June 1, 2012

      In response to Emma’s post, I think the biggest connection that I made between these two articles by Singer and Thomson is that the target of the corporations seems to be off. You have General Mills targeting children as their primary consumers, when children can still find dirt nutritious. Having the coach character in Millsberry periodically tell the kids to take a break and go and exercise isn’t enough. If obesity numbers in the nation want to go down, corporations should start understanding what kids need versus what they are giving them. Also, in the Monsanto case, they delve into the myth that envisions “non-Western poor populations as potential consumers” (406). Rural communities is where the majority of undernourished people are, probably because they don’t get most of the onslaught of billboards, commercials, and corporate grocery stores that others do. All populations need a better understanding of the toxins we could be putting in our bodies, and the Monsanto case illustrates that we won’t find a better food security for everyone if we aren’t given the tools to better feed ourselves (417).

  3. Seana McCroddan permalink
    May 30, 2012

    I believe it is both the corporations and the consumers are at fault for the consumption of unhealthy foods. Yes, the final decision is up to the consumer, I think corporations should be making more of a conscious effort to sell food for nutritional value, and not for profit. They should be making better decisions in regards to the health of their customers, because with the way our society has grown, we rely on them completely for the diversity of the foods we keep in our refrigerators. But with the introduction of technology contributing to our food-choice decisions, as was stated in Thomson’s essay, it seems to have become a game of selling foods that may not be healthy for you to eat, for as much money as possible.
    I really liked Thomson’s writing style, and I thought she did a very nice job showing how cereal companies rope their customers in by using whatever means necessary, ranging the entire technological spectrum. Her writing style was very different from any other essay we have read for this class so far. I liked the detail and description she used to place her readers in her computer chair as she was exploring these websites. Companies like Kellogg, General Mills, Post and Quaker are selling cereal products that are “so thoroughly processed and sugared and filled with additives that they might as well be cookies.” This just goes back to show the mind games that are played each day in trying to sell products that customers shouldn’t want and don’t need.
    I definitely remember when I was little choosing the brand with the toy or the extras added into the box. Prizes found in cereal would sell it for me even if I didn’t really like the taste to begin with. My sisters and I would choose McDonald’s over Wendy’s or Burger King when my family would grab food on the road because “they had better toys.” Corporations are playing smart with their target audience, they know that by spending a little extra on a temporary tattoo or joke card added to their product, sales will go up.

    • Maya Smith permalink
      May 31, 2012

      Just yesterday I came face-to-face with children getting heavily persuaded by a “special”cereal. It was spider-man cereal with “lizard monster” marshmellows. The artificial pink stained the milk that it soaked in and the cereal had absolutely no nutrition in it. I was nannying two children and they both screamed for joy when they saw their mother had bought it for them. I could not be paid enough to eat that junk, but to children its a way to pretend that they are close to spiderman, or whoever the cereal embodies. Children do not pay attention to taste. They pay attention to colors, shapes, and franchises. I completely agree with you that Thomson’s writing style fit very well with the subject in which she was researching. She took us through a game process as if we were in the head of a child. I tried to do the same when I was watching the children shove spiderman shaped flakes into their mouths.

  4. Seana McCroddan permalink
    May 30, 2012

    In response to Emma Hubbard and tamulida-

    I really like the point you brought up about children not fully understanding the messages that marketers are targeting them with. I didn’t think it through while I was reading the essays for this week, but now that I am, it adds a kind of pathetic side to the food marketing selling children’s products. I think because they don’t fully understand the nature of things like toys in their cereal boxes or the TV commercials for their favorite macaroni and cheese, is the reason they work so well in the first place. Kid’s attention can be easily lost, but easily won too. With some bright colors, noises, and colorful textures, their attention can be caught just long enough to get them to think that they need a product they see on the TV. With enough nagging and complaining, their parents will finally give in and that product will then be sitting in their food pantry at home.

    • kikomr permalink
      May 31, 2012

      I agree with both of y’alls comments about how children are easily persuaded by advertisements. Children do not have a concrete sense of financial responsibility or healthy choices, but when they see a luring advertisement, they want to identify with the advertisement by eating what they have on screen. This is similar to discourse about Disney and communication. Children watch Disney programs and then are fascinated by having physical toys of those characters, which are surprisingly found in Happy Meals! It is almost a neverending cycle.

  5. scalesaj permalink
    June 1, 2012

    I have heard a lot of talk about Monsanto (which even when misspelled comes up, just to provide an example of their reach). In many of the places where I’ve heard about this company, it seemed demonized for having an almost empire-like structure. I have always wondered how much of that was deserved, and how much of it was fear of big business, but this article by Singer provides a good, unbiased look at this question. For me the, historical background of this company gave some reasons for their notoriety. Their involvement with PCBs, dioxins and bovine growth hormone cast a negative shadow on the corporation. On the other hand, this company has a very noble pledge, which is to better equip farmers with tools to make their job easier, and to better supply the world’s growing population with food. The complications arise around how this company goes about doing this, and even if they are really still working towards that goal.
    My overall opinion about this company is somewhat similar to some of the things that Singer mentioned. It seems that this is a company very concerned with its image, possibly in a way detrimental to the more general environment. My main reason for believing this was the point that was made about there already being subsidies to not grow corn, while a large focus of Monsanto is higher corn production, such as the experiment in Indiana in which they tried to up the crop yield. What is the point of that? It cannot be to eliminate hunger, because there is already food, it is just concentrated in the wrong places. This makes me think that their goal of ending hunger is more of a warmth appeal than anything else, and the presence of hunger actually bolsters the company’s vision. This makes the company sound more evil than I believe they are, because I think that the company does still try to fulfill other parts that are put forth in their CSR reports. Genetically modified foods do help provide more nutrition to impoverished areas with products such as GM golden rice, as well as better growing methods in rural areas. In my opinion, hunger will always be in our world. If the weather doesn’t create it, our own personal or governmental decisions can bring it on, and because of this ever-present threat, Monsanto has an ever-present advertising tool. This just seem ethically wrong for Monsanto to suppose that the weight of the world’s hunger is on its shoulders, just to use it to market themselves in a favorable light, and cover up past mistakes.
    The actions of Monsanto are almost similar to the way that General Mills adds value to their cereal with game codes, in that Monsanto adds value to its company by purporting to be the messiah to end world hunger. However, instead of appealing to childish sugar and computer lust, they appeal to adults’ better nature. Maybe Monsanto has the power to end world hunger, but they haven’t succeeded yet.

  6. brubakra permalink
    June 1, 2012

    I believe both the consumer and the corporations are at fault for the consumption of unhealthy food. Even if a corporation makes non-nutritious food, doesn’t mean people have to buy it; that’s the consumer’s decision. But the corporation certainly can have a lot of sway in the direction of the purchasing of their product through advertising, especially when it’s repeatedly advertised. It makes me nervous that many unhealthy food companies are now targeting children to be their primary consumer targets. Thomson reflects this worry in her article tracking some of the advertising done by the General Mills cereal. The GM cereals are taking advantage of a new kind of advertising called advergaming, which was a concept I’ve never heard before, but understood and recognized right away. On brand websites, these online, interactive games draw in crowds which is great marketing for a cereal such as Fruit Loops, but the number one ingredient is sugar, which isn’t very beneficial to kids health. So how do kids recognize that while the games are fun, this product might not be as good as the games they are playing. The child then becomes a influenced and uninformed consumer, and the parents then lose some of their control in their child’s understanding of good food versus not-so-good food. The child becomes a player in another world (in this article, Millsberry), but comes out thinking that what is okay in that world, is okay in real life. I agree with Thomson that these games are simply rehearsal for real life and virtual pleasure, but they most likely won’t mean real pleasure in reality. Eating too much cereal can make you sick, or too much daily will be unhealthy and you will gain weight. None of these effects are shown to your ‘Buddy’ avatar in Millsberry world therefore giving the child a false sense of reality and blinds them of real consequences. Food no longer is meant something you needed just for survival, but something to play with, and you need it to win a prize or beat the arcade game. This game, which I initially looked up before realizing that it had been discontinued in December (thank goodness…), definitely felt like it was a creepy Utopia to me…

    I remember growing up with cereals like Cocoa Puffs and Fruit Loops for sure, but I also remember my trying to wean me off of them as soon as possible. I’m sure a kid wouldn’t care much for the bowl of Grape Nuts or Special K that I eat in the morning now! So many kids almost expect marshmallows or sugar to be visible in their cereals nowadays. I do remember falling prey to commercials brandishing new toys or yummy-looking foods and begging my parents to get me that product simply because the commercials had convinced me I NEEDED it, not just wanted it. For instance, my parents still won’t let me forget the Mighty Mouse drinks I used to make them buy because I would see the commercials for it on TV and think that in order to be stronger, faster, and smarter I HAD to drink Mighty Mouse juice!! Once my parents finally bought me a pack, I discovered I hated it, and my parents discovered the 0% nutritional value in the drinks, I don’t think I had much power in asking for things from the TV ever again…

  7. scalesaj permalink
    June 1, 2012

    In an earlier post I noted that I believe corporations should either take the lead on promoting health or people need to be much more in control themselves. There is an exception to this however, and that is with children. With children everyone must support good eating habits and educate children about the dangers of unhealthy food, and how ads can be persuasive. We do not allow people to drink alcohol before their 21 because our society deems it a threat to our health and development. I’m not saying we should put a age limit on sugar, but perhaps we should be a little more thoughtful about the way we raise the next generation especially when poor diet can create problems just as bad as alcohol.

  8. gilliakl permalink
    June 1, 2012

    I think that the blame for the consumption of unhealthy food can be put on both the consumers and the corporations. I strongly believe that corporations have a duty to their consumers to provide them with the healthiest and best-prepared products that they can. Corporations depend on their consumers to survive. In a nutshell, the purpose of businesses are to make money. However, if these businesses are making products that in the long run harm their consumers they are contributing to the demise of the very people that make them successful. It may be more expensive for businesses to use ingredients that are better for their consumers, but by doing so, one can ensure that your consumers may live longer thus; one will have a longer stream of cash flow. On the other hand, I also believe that the consumer can take some of the blame as well. With the abundance of technology and the abundance of choices we have today, we as consumers need to educate ourselves of the potential implications that buying certain products will have on ourselves and our families. This will take more effort on our part but in the grand scheme of things, it is something so small that can benefit ourselves and our love ones.

  9. Josie Warren permalink
    June 25, 2012

    I think it is definitely the consumer’s fault over the corporation’s fault as to why there is a consumption of unhealthy food. The quote you mention in the article you found by Muller, B. (2007) helped me better give reason as to why it’s the consumer’s fault. He says: “As consumers…we expect that promotional materials on behalf of these products are neither false nor misleading. But, increasingly, we expect marketers to go beyond this – to additionally take on responsibility for our consumption behaviour.” Consumers need to be more aware of the motives behind most promotions. Obviously the corporation is promoting it for a reason: Because it’s going to make them more money! Same with how Mcdonald’s fooled it’s consumers into thinking the Supersize option was a good deal, Outback did the same thing when they promoted their Outback Special, a 9 oz sirloin. They said “Hey if you get the bigger sirloin you can get two sides with your meal, as opposed to one!” However, if the consumers really looked into this “deal,” they would see that they DO in fact already get two sides with the smaller 6oz sirloin. Outback fooled their customers into thinking they were getting an extra side by going with the bigger steak, when really you get 2 sides regardless. Corporations do this ALL the time and consumers need to learn to actually look into the “deal” being promoted and see whether or not it is misleading. Consumers can’t expect corporations to take “responsibility for their consumption behavior” because a corporation’s main goal is to make money and they will trick you and mislead you anyway they can to get it!

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