Television Food Advertising and Children in the United States (page 3)

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


Children of all ages are exposed to a substantial amount of advertising for food and beverages, but their exposure varies significantly by age. Because children 8–12 watch so much television, and therefore see so many food ads, they may be the group most affected by food marketing. This is also likely to be an especially important age for the development of children's food habits, since they are likely to have more time away from their parents, have their own money, and have more opportunity to make their own food choices. Therefore, policymakers and industry leaders may want to pay special attention to advertising seen by tweens.

It is clear that food and beverages continue to dominate the television advertising landscape, particularly for children. Food is the most widely advertised product on the networks in the study, and among children's shows, fully half (50%) of all ad time is for food. Therefore, policies that impact food advertising are likely to impact the children's television world as well.

Most of the food ads that children and teens see on TV are for foods that nutritionists, watchdog groups, and government agencies argue should be consumed either in moderation, occasionally, or in small portions. Of the 8,854 food ads reviewed in the study, there were no ads for fruits or vegetables targeted at children or teens. As the food industry moves ahead with the commitment to shift the balance of products advertised to children, it will be important to have independent research to track changes.

Among all food ads targeting children, only a relatively small proportion (15%) currently depict a physically active lifestyle. Both the IOM and the FTC/HHS reports recommended that food advertisers include more such depictions in their ads, and the food industry initiative promises change in this area. This study will provide a useful benchmark against which to measure progress.

Some ads appeal to young people with enticements such as free gifts or sweepstakes (19%) that they can win by purchasing the product, an issue that has been a concern to policymakers in other countries, such as Great Britain, where such practices were recently prohibited (Office of Communications, 2006). A relatively small proportion—just over 1 in 10—use a children's character from TV or movies, another practice that has drawn concern from advocates and was recently banned in food advertising to children in Great Britain.

Finally, the study underscores the limited expectations that policymakers should place on public service campaigns on fitness and nutrition. Given these campaigns' reliance on donated ad space (or limited campaign budgets), it is not surprising that children see very few such messages. For example, children under 8 see one PSA on fitness or nutrition for every 26 food ads; for tweens, it's one PSA for every 48 food ads; and for teens, it's one for every 130 food ads. While this certainly does not mean there isn't an important role for PSAs in the fight against childhood obesity, it does indicate that those undertaking educational campaigns should have limited expectations, or a substantial budget.

This study does not address the issue of whether food advertising to children on TV is going up or down, nor does it address the issue of whether such advertising influences what kids eat, or should be in any way restricted, either through voluntary industry efforts or through regulatory policy. What it does indicate, however, is that food marketing is a predominant part of the television advertising landscape for children, and that young people's exposure to such messages is substantial, while their exposure to countervailing health messages on TV is minimal.

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