Television Food Advertising and Children in the United States

— The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation
Updated on Feb 18, 2011


As policymakers, consumer advocates and health organizations have sought to address the increasing problem of childhood obesity in this country, one of the many potential variables they've focused on has been the abundance of food advertising seen by children, particularly on TV. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) convened an expert committee that conducted an exhaustive review of research concerning the relationship between food marketing and children's diets. The committee concluded that —Television advertising influences the food preferences, purchase requests, and diets, at least of children under age 12 years, and is associated with the increased rates of obesity among children and youth" (IOM, 2006). The IOM panel recommended a shift in the balance of food advertising to children, toward healthier options.

In addition, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a report with a similar recommendation; the American Academy of Pediatrics called for a ban on ads for what they called "junk food" in shows aimed at young children; and the Federal Communications Commission formed a new task force on media and childhood obesity. In Great Britain, policymakers have banned ads for foods high in fat, salt or sugar in programming aimed at children under 16, and have prohibited the use of premiums or children's characters in food ads to young people.

In December 2006, ten of the top food companies in the U.S. announced a new Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which includes a commitment to devote at least 50% of all advertising to healthier foods or to messages that encourage fitness or nutrition.

The purpose of this study is to paint a picture of the current landscape of food advertising to children on TV, to help inform the efforts of policymakers and the food and media industries and to provide a benchmark for measuring change in the years ahead.

The study presented here is the largest ever conducted of television advertising to children. Where previous studies have typically used samples of 40–50 hours of programming, this study uses more than 1,600 hours.

It covers all genres of programming viewed by children, rather than just children's shows, and combines a detailed analysis of advertising content with viewing data from a large national sample of children, to determine how many ads young people actually see given the mix of programming they watch. Previous studies have not accounted for the proportion of children's viewing that is of children's vs. non-children's programs, or is on cable vs. broadcast or ad-supported vs. commercial-free networks.

Having an accurate picture of the current landscape with regard to food advertising to children is important as the country moves forward in the effort to combat childhood obesity. If we overestimate the presence of food marketing in children's lives, or its role in their diets, we may place too much faith in marketing-oriented policy solutions; if we underestimate it, we may neglect important policy options. Government agencies and advisory bodies have faced frustrating obstacles in getting the data they seek to help inform their deliberations; it is the purpose of this report to help fill at least some of the gaps in their knowledge, and to provide a benchmark from which to measure future changes in the food marketing arena.

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