Study shows junk food advertisements target kids

Stephen J. Hedges

WASHINGTON (MCT) — Children eight to 12 years old are exposed to an average of 21 television food advertisements each day, commercials that predominantly push candy, snacks and other unhealthy foods contributing to childhood obesity. Fully half the ads on children’s programs involve the sale of food items.

And they’re not pushing healthy foods. “The vast majority of the foods that kids see advertised on television today are for products that nutritionists would tell us they need to be eating less of, not more of,” said Vicky Rideout, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, which reported the research Wednesday as part of what Kaiser billed as the first comprehensive study of food advertising and children.

The Kaiser study expands on a 2005 Institute of Medicine report that found a link between food advertising and children’s food preferences. That earlier study on childhood obesity said the food industry “should develop and strictly adhere to marketing and advertising guidelines that minimize the risk of obesity in children and youth.”

Major food manufacturers have promised to do just that, pledging that half of their advertising targeting children will include messages that promote healthy food and physical activities. That effort is still being developed, however.

Over the past 30 years, the obesity rate in children ages six to 11 has jumped from four to 19 percent. For children aged two to five, the rate has increased from five to 14 percent. For kids 12 to 19 years old, it rose from five to 17 percent.

About 34 percent of the ads kids viewed were for candy and snacks, 28 percent were for cereal and 10 percent were for fast foods, the study found. Four percent of the ads pitched dairy products, and just one percent marketed fruit juice.

Of the 8,854 commercials the Kaiser study included, none were for fruits or vegetables.

The study focused exclusively on the amount and content of food advertising aimed at children, and not on their purchasing behavior, or that of their parents, as a result of the commercials they viewed.

Kaiser found that the children aged eight to 12 view an average of 7,600 food-related commercials each year. Teens aged 13 to 17 viewed 17 food ads a day, or 6,000 a year. Children ages two to eight years saw the fewest food ads at 12 a day, or 4,400 a year.

By contrast, children eight to 12 years old are exposed to about 12 seconds of public service advertising on nutrition and health each day, the study found.

Most of the food ads examined by Kaiser emphasized taste and fun and then uniqueness as primary selling points, the study found.

Health and nutrition were the primary topics of one percent of the food ads the study reviewed. One in nine of the ads featured kids involved in physical activity, such as soccer or basketball or cycling.

Seven percent included incentives such as free toys as part of their appeal, while four percent used a contest to promote the food product, usually a candy, snack food or soda.

The study was based on 1,638 hours of television viewing. The programs included those on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS, UPN and the old WB network, as well as cable channels ABC Family, BET, the Cartoon Network, Disney, MTV and Nickelodeon.

The study found that three cable networks — ABC Family, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon — featured the largest amount of food advertising with 3 minutes 31 seconds of such ads each hour. That amount, researchers said, made up nearly a third of the advertising time on those networks.

At a forum to discuss the Kaiser study Wednesday, advertising and food industry representatives said they were taking steps to include healthier messages in their ads, and to include healthier ingredients in products in order to promote them.

“If you look across our portfolio in our marketing, less than one percent of our total marketing dollars are toward children’s marketing,” said Nancy Green, vice president for health and wellness at PepsiCo. “If you look at us companywide, that’s not a huge effort that we spend toward marketing to children. We focus more of our ads on adults.”

She added, “Some of the ads for children have very little research behind them.”

C. Lee Peeler, president and CEO of the National Advertising Review Council, told the forum that the 11 largest food manufacturers have pledged to follow an advertising code that stresses health and nutrition themes.

“This is a first-ever effort by an industry to do that, and I say, ‘Give us a chance to see what we can do,'” said Peeler, answering criticism about the lack of a deadline for those advertising reforms. “Showing Ronald McDonald riding a bicycle or anyone else riding a bicycle is not going to be enough to help meet the criteria of the program.”

But Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, was skeptical. “In reality, what we’ll see are candy bar ads with physical activity messages in them,” she said. “What the Kaiser Family study shows today is that self-regulation isn’t working.”

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., told the forum that the food industry must voluntarily shift marketing campaigns away from unhealthy foods for kids or face the prospect of government-imposed limits on advertising.

“I think this is a clear moment for people to work together and get things done,” Brownback said. “If people are not working together and things are not happening, I think you’ll see a much more regulatory regime stepping forward in this atmosphere because of the depth of the problem.”

Stephen J. Hedges

Chicago Tribune