Mom & Pop Culture: The Grocery Game

I never understood how blissfully unaware I was of the whole “Grocery Game” until I had my son. Before having him, I would just zip in and out, grabbing the few items I needed, not paying very much attention to my surroundings other than how long the check out line was.

But now?

It’s all painfully clear. From commercials, ad circulars/coupons to the actual stores themselves, I now realize the carefully constructed ways that companies, advertisers, and marketers all work together to make me want to stand in the middle of the cereal aisle and scream.

It all starts with commercials and advertisements. I never paid too much attention to them before, but along with the kiddo came a bit of a stricter budget. I compared brands, I clipped a few coupons, and I cringed at what I noticed.

The majority of ads are directed at women. Advertisers assume that it is the women that do all the cleaning, shopping and cooking, and so 99% of ads target them. Perhaps women do tend to take on these roles more than their male counterparts, but why is that? Maybe it’s a chicken and the egg type of conundrum. It’s assumed that traditionally the women take on these domestic duties and so the ads focus on them. We, in turn, see these ads where gender stereotypes (Women cook, clean, and care for kids! Men grill and build and mow the grass!) persist and they infiltrate our subconscious.

However, advertisers apparently have no problem demeaning both women and men to get men into the grocery store (and sell a little milk in the process):

If the ads aren’t enough to put you off from the supermarket, once you step foot inside—with a child—you’ll want to run screaming for the hills, because that’s when the marketing truly hits. As a parent, you try and set limits, and you’ll quickly come to learn that branding/marketing becomes your arch nemesis in that regard.

Let’s use Disney as an example (since they’re one of the biggest offenders when it comes to branding). Sure, you might expect familiar Disney faces to pop up in places like mylar balloons in the florist department, on band-aids, shampoo, toothpaste, and tooth brushes in the health aisle, or on paper goods like plates, napkins, and cups. But would you expect those sneaky princesses to pop up in the produce section?

Grapes sold in a bad with Disney Princesses on it
Grapes—sponsored by Disney!

Yet most of the branded items stray very far from the healthy choices of the produce section. Prepackaged food filled with artificial colors, sugar and questionable ingredients all call out to passing kids with their cartoon-laded packages.

Picture of Snack Food Aisle

The stores chip in as well with product placement—not giving parents much of a fighting chance. All of the sugary (and also more expensive) products are placed at kid level, making it much easier for them to spot, followed by a chorus of “Mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy!”

Of course common sense dictates that we leave the kids at home when grocery shopping, but reality doesn’t always work that way. People have jobs and shopping gets done when there’s time, and that might mean with a kid or two in tow.

While the ideal (for me at least) would be procuring most of our necessities via local farms, stores, or co-ops, that isn’t always feasible. Shopping in stores where branding is limited also comes with a price: a higher grocery bill. And for many families it’s just not possible.

We can also do our best to teach our children what healthy food is. My son has an excellent grasp on what “growing food” is and why he needs it before he can have any treats. He knows what food fuels his body best, but that doesn’t stop him from jumping up and down, demanding a box of macaroni and neon orange “cheeze” with Lightening McQueen stamped all over it. When Congress is essentially declaring that pizza is a vegetable, parents can use all the help they can get.

Branding is never going to go away. Companies learned long ago that connecting their image to anything they could get their hands on would boost profits, and they’re not going to let that go without a fight.

With the holiday season now directly upon us, branding and marketing become harder to ignore, especially as trips to the store may become more frequent. Ideally, the rules to the Grocery Game will start to change as more and more people become frustrated with the way marketing targets them and their children. Until then, feel free to join me as I rush past the cereal aisle, an echo of “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” trailing behind.

by Avital Norman Nathman
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Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer and fulltime feminist killjoy. Find her tweeting @TheMamafesto

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17 Comments Have Been Posted

I shop the walls of my

I shop the walls of my grocery store and if I grab my water upon entering I can avoid the aisles. I saw the disney grapes in mylocal store last year and I felt so sad. Sad for a child that needs "princesses" for their yummy grapes to be valid, shame on the parent that gives in. I am childless and I always think of comebacks for the times I hear mommy mommy mommy. Kelly Ripa said it best when her kids asked for something in the store she would tell them "we cant afford it" and walk away. Then again everything is good in theory.
PS Most commercials make me not want to watch tv. they give me such a headache.


Really, parents should be "shamed" for buying their kids food because it's branded? How enlightened, especially since you admit you do not have kids. You pick your battles, and you do not "shame" people for not having a "comeback" ready for their own child.


I know I always feel ashamed when my children persuade me to buy fruit and vegetables.

I don't give two hoots if there are princesses on the grapes (although it does beg the question - what do the marketers offer boy children? Because - shriek! - princesses are girly!) unless that 'clever' bit of branding puts the food bill up. Then I become a tad irked.

Bad reasoning

"We can't afford it" actually sounds like one of the worst replies. It is usually an outright lie and the child knows it.

I think that it's better to be honest and get a kid to understand that:
- Foods with little nutritional value are often on sale because they don't have much of a real value
- The extra money is only because of the character on the box. You can put stickers or a printout on the box when you get home to get the same effect.

It's important to say that even if the child insists on getting the product, because he/she will think about it and be more aware of their choices. They're not stupid, they'll get that they're getting less in return when they see less candy in the box, for example...

I definitely get where you're

I definitely get where you're coming from about how it's upsetting that a bag of delicious, healthy grapes needs a Disney character on it to make a child want to eat them, but at the same time, in today's consumer culture (which is a reality, we all know it) those "princess" grapes just may help a little girl choose fruit over sugary, preservative and chemical ridden snacks.

I totally understand and

I totally understand and sympathize-- marketing is disgusting and unethical-- but my daughter, while growing up, was familiar with both the word 'no' and the off button of the television. Do not give your power up!

Completely Agree!

It is definitely possible (yet harder) to not get sucked in to all the branding. What upsets me is that every year it becomes harder and harder as companies, advertisers, marketers, supermarkets, clothing lines, etc... work even harder against "us." The amount of branding/marketing that occurs today is at a much higher/more intense rate than when I was a kid growing up in the 80s. A lot of that is due to technology and spreading information faster, but a lot has to do with our own consumerist culture...we've essentially gotten ourselves to this point. And that sucks.

Also agreed!

Is it really a problem if the

Is it really a problem if the branding is on healthy foods? If it gets kids to want to try and/or eat fruits and vegetables I don't find this too terribly bad. On unhealthy foods I can see where this would be a problem.

It's a problem in the sense

It's a problem in the sense that food (healthy or not) does NOT need to be branded. This form of marketing is not only deceptive but underhanded. Why tie in branding to any food? Nutrition is nutrition and having a Dora or Buzz on the box doesn't make it any more/less healthy. All is does is make more money for companies who are already preying on folks who get addicted to their brands.

It's bad enough when it's connected to clothing, school supplies, homegoods (bedding, towels, etc...) that it just pisses me off when food gets hit with the branding/marketing stick. There's no reason for it beyond making more money for large corporations. And, it is just one more way to get kids sucked into the brand (whether Disney, Matell, etc...).

Disturbing Disney Grapes

I have never seen branded grapes before, let alone by Disney, and this is a little weird. If I had seen these when I was growing up then I don't think they would make me want grapes any more than I did already - it's literally just a piece of plastic on the packaging. I feel that children are more influenced by food that's properly tailored to their idols and fits in with the film or tv show, rather than just randomly choosing grapes as being a princess-esque food. Though it would've been amusing if they'd sold Snow White apples...

Thank you!

Thank you for writing this! You put into words a lot of things I've been trying to articulate - and more. I love your take on the Disney takeover.

This August I was in the Loblaws near my apartment and by the time I left I was physically tense and stressed. They devised a "Busy Moms" campaign to target moms - not dads - in a really stereotypical, old-school way. I got so annoyed with being bombarded by signage that I wrote them a letter and posted it on my blog.

Their response was less than satisfying, as I expected, but writing the letter connected me with other people whole felt the same way about the campaign. At least that part was satisfying.

Keep up the good work!

good pointd for discussion

when i am on my game in the grocery store, things like branded grapes and prepacked carrot sticks with ranch dressing can be an excellent time to talk about math and budgeting. i don't know if the princess grapes cost more because i haven't seen them in my store, but prepacked foods do and i have done math problems with my kids in the aisles of the store to demonstrate this point. i would follow that up by asking what else they might choose to do with the money. we certainly have bought precut carrots and "yogurt" marketed to kids, but i try to make them think about what they are choosing and asking later if they really liked it as much as the ad led them to believe they would. usually the answer is no. it's true that our kids are smart, and we have to keep promoting that.

great ideas

thanks for sharing lauriew. Turning the whole grocery game into a learning moment sounds like a great plan, and one I'll definitely pack into my arsenal of "mom tools."

Cinderella Ate My Daughter

The new book "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" talks a lot about this, but with a focus on girls.


My posts this week are actually going to take a lot from Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter (since I've deemed this "Princess Week," ha!) and will culminate in an interview i did with her. Her book certainly has me nodding my head in agreement over many of these things.

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