Ethics and packaging design: Marketing of sugary breakfast cereals to South African children



Media & Communications Design


  • ethics, misleading advertising


Child-orientated sugary breakfast cereals are a prominent product feature in the dry goods section of supermarkets. Scholars in health sciences and marketing have reported on these products’ poor nutritional value and how marketers appeal to children through the use of persuasive television advertising and packaging design. This study presents a visual thematic content analysis of child- orientated breakfast cereal packaging available in local supermarkets. The results indicated that South African marketers use “friendly” and “welcoming” cartoon characters as the most prominent graphic element on breakfast cereal packaging. As such, marketers disguise unhealthy, high sugar content   products   behind   cartoon   characters   and  juxtapose  these   characters  against   bright background colours in order to be eye-catching to the young consumer. The packaging designs and themes depict fun, enjoyment as well as happy, upbeat families and even employ text and graphics to portray a healthy theme.

The themes employed as regards child-orientated packaging design and their marketing content do not harmonise with the Department of Health’s (DoH) Strategic Plan 2014/2015-2018/2019. This plan, inter alia, aims to reduce childhood obesity, reinforce a healthy lifestyle, and improve health promotion  and  nutrition  intervention.  Child-orientated  cereal  packaging  design  is  also  in  stark contrast to and in conflict with Guideline 14 of the 2014 Draft Regulations relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foods. Guideline 14 provides a set of recommendations and regulations that will limit children’s exposure to the marketing of certain foods. Marketers, for example, may not use an image of a happy, upbeat family to market unhealthy foods, and may not appeal directly to children.

This paper questioned the ethics of persuasive and misleading graphic and text elements to market sugary breakfast cereals to children. Furthermore, this paper questioned whether it is ethical to use design elements to present an unhealthy product in an appealing and attractive manner to children. It  proposes  that  we  need  stricter  (design)  advertising  self-regulatory  codes,  and  that  design educators should align design training with the spirit of local and international regulations.

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