September 2009 Issue
By Maura Keller
Vol. 11 No. 9 P. 46
Is flashy, kid-targeted food promotion contributing to obesity? With children’s food marketing on the hot seat, some companies are agreeing to certain restrictions while RDs find creative ways to spread healthy messages.
We’ve all seen them: innovative commercials touting the tastiness of kid-friendly food items, capturing the attention of the youngest consumer set as they watch their favorite television programs. Teeming with well-designed graphics, interesting content, and engaging voice-overs, these streamlined visual masterpieces attract targeted audiences—namely children and teens—and keep them coming back for more. But at what cost? As the obesity rate among children and teens continues to climb, health professionals, RDs, and politicos are trying to curb the impact that food advertising may have on children’s eating habits.
What the Research Shows
Substantial research has been conducted on food advertising geared toward children. “Approximately $10 billion is spent annually advertising food to children. These ads are clearly linked to the weight issue in this country,” says Daniel S. Kirschenbaum, PhD, author of Treating Childhood and Adolescent Obesity, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and the clinical director of Wellspring, the leading weight loss organization for children. “The risk of obesity in preschool children increases by 6% for every hour of television watched per day. If a television is placed in a child’s bedroom, the risk of obesity increases by 31%. That huge risk increase is not just because the kids are sedentary while watching television; it is also clearly linked to the messages being conveyed while the child is watching television, many of which promote unhealthy food choices. Children learn that eating in an unhealthy way is ‘good’ and part of a normal life.”
Consider this: The average American child sees more than 10,000 food ads each year, and many of them feature foods that are high in sugar and fat and relatively low in nutritional value. “One recent study showed that for every 10 nutrition-related public service announcements, there were 560 ads for food. So kids are exposed to 56 times more food ads than actual nutritional information while watching television,” Kirschenbaum says. “Another study showed that 6- to 8-year-olds believed that fast foods are healthier for them than food from their own home.”
Experts agree that most kid-targeted food advertisements promote foods of poor nutritional quality: fast food, highly sugared cereals, snacks, sweets, and sweetened drinks.
“This advertising undermines parental authority and creates widespread discrepancies between what parents tell kids is healthful to eat and what food ads say is desirable to eat,” says Cristina Caro, MBA, RD, LD, program coordinator for the Healthy Lifestyles Child Health Promotion at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Children who are under the age of 8 are unable to understand the persuasive intent of advertisements, according to the American Psychological Association.
As Caro explains, the research on food advertising is extensive and has covered issues such as the following:
• the quantity of food advertising on television;
• the content of food advertising targeting children;
• the effects of television food advertisements on children’s weight status;
• the role of the media in influencing children’s nutritional perceptions; and
• the content analysis of food marketing on popular children’s Web sites.
“This research extends beyond the United States, as Australia, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom share concerns,” Caro says.
“Like many things in science, they can’t prove a causal relationship between advertising and obesity,” says Jill Jayne, MS, RD, a musician who creates interactive media to help kids understand how commercials work. “This is because there are so many factors that influence weight—in this case, mainly physical activity and diet—and no study would ever get permission to subject children to large amounts of advertising. In addition, we usually study time with advertising by studying how much time kids spend consuming media, which is really studying how much time they spend being inactive. In other words, this is a very complex thing to study.”
But if kids are watching more television and therefore viewing more ads, what kind of impact can this have on their diet?
As Jayne explains, in March 2007, researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 50% of all ad time on children’s shows was for food.1 Foods with low nutrient density—candy, sweets, soda, and fast food—comprise a large portion of these advertisements. Harrison and Marske at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found that 83% of food advertisements targeted to children featured unhealthy foods.2
“One thing that does become clear in this area is that the more time kids spend with media, the more time they are mindlessly eating and the more ads they see for unhealthy food,” Jayne says. Marketers take advantage of the fact that kids can’t separate an advertisement from a program and that they don’t understand that the purpose of a commercial is to sell a product.
Advertisements target kids through many tactics: the use of appealing characters, fast-changing visual stimuli, toy giveaways, and connecting junk food with fun and excitement. “They also apply pressure by alluding to the possibility of fitting in more with friends or distinguishing themselves as part of a ‘cooler,’ more exclusive group by eating certain foods,” Kirschenbaum says. “The use of promotional giveaways has increased over the years because it works. It’s been shown to produce changes in attitudes and behaviors among kids, who actually influence a great deal of their parents’ food purchases.”
With targeting advertising to children comes potential problems, including obesity, poor food habits, and decreased physical activity.
“I tend to look at this with an even wider lens,” Jayne says. “Kids are under increasing pressure to perform, to have the right clothes and toys, a problem we’ve created by bombarding them with mega media exposure and little, if any, tools for interpreting the things they see. I truly believe that our consumer culture is one of the major forces behind our obesity epidemic. We have created a permanent dissatisfaction that can only be satiated by buying products. This is very dangerous. We see this when we study overall happiness comparing the United States to other countries. Our kids are stressed out. The people they see in ads are beautiful, and they are eating junk food.”
Kirschenbaum agrees. “One of the key problems is most of the food that is advertised is terribly unhealthy—high in fat, high in sugar, high in caloric density,” he says. “There is no commercial gain for companies to promote children eating fewer calories. In addition, children often have little information to combat what they learn through advertising or to help them even understand that they are being targeted. In fact, an Australian study showed that more than half of the children surveyed believed that Ronald McDonald knew best what they should eat to be healthy.”
With food advertising to kids on the hot seat, some companies are limiting the amount of their advertising to children.
In June 2007, Kellogg’s announced it would phase out advertising its products to children under the age of 12 unless the foods met specific nutrition guidelines for calories, sugar, fat, and sodium. In addition, Kellogg’s would stop using licensed characters or branded toys to promote foods unless the products met the nutrition guidelines. The company explained that products that did not meet the guidelines would be reformulated so they did or would no longer be advertised to children.
“In July 2007, 11 major food and beverage marketers, including Pepsi, Campbell’s Soup, and General Mills, also voluntarily limited advertising to children,” Jayne says.
In addition, several food companies have recently joined the Better Business Bureau’s Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which includes the following principles:
• Media advertising/messaging: Supports ongoing ad campaigns encouraging kids to be active and eat better. Eight companies adopted minimum nutritional standards for marketing food to children under the age of 12, advertising only “better-for-you” foods.
• Third-party licensed characters: Limited to “better-for-you products” or healthy lifestyle messages in advertising primarily directed to children under the age of 12.
• Product placement: Will not be sought out or paid for in child-directed media.
• Advertising in schools: No advertising food and beverage products in elementary schools.
• Use of products in interactive games: Game must incorporate or be accompanied by products representing healthy dietary choices.
In July 2008, the Children’s Food Initiative released “The Children’s Food & Beverage Advertising Initiative in Action: A Progress Report on the First Six Months of Implementation: July-December 2007.” The report indicates that during July through December 2007, Burger King Corp, Cadbury Adams, General Mills, Kellogg Company, McDonald’s, and PepsiCo began implementing their pledges by limiting or changing what they advertised to children. For example, during this time, much of General Mills’, McDonald’s, and PepsiCo’s child-directed advertising was for products meeting their better-for-you product nutrition guidelines.
Calls to several companies for further details about their pledges were not returned.
“I do think some companies are trying to promote healthier products to parents,” says Nicole Tracy, RD, LDN, a pediatric dietitian at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Ill. “Parents are very worried about things such as excess sugar, food dyes, low-nutrient snacks, and childhood obesity. Therefore, food companies will go more ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ or add fiber or use cane sugar or whatever sounds good to the consumer [parents]. Do I think these foods are better? Sometimes. But it all comes down to the parents and what they teach their children about nutrition, exercise, and balance.”
Indeed, nutrition experts agree that parents play an important role in educating children about what constitutes nutritional foods at home, in the grocery aisles, and in restaurants. RDs, pediatricians, and other parental educators must work to communicate this message to parents.
As mentioned previously, the United States is not alone in its concerns surrounding the relationship between children’s food advertising and childhood obesity. As Caro explains, several other countries are calling for tighter regulations. “There is a need for comparative international studies, as the ban on junk food ads during children’s programming seems to have little impact,” she says. “The total ban of ads to kids in Norway and Sweden is to avoid exploitation rather than obesity.”
Politicians are also studying the impact of advertising on kids, particularly across various media. As Jayne explains, in 2006, U.S. Sen Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Sen Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) proposed to amend the Children’s Television Act of 1990 to apply the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) limitations for children’s television advertising (12 minutes per hour on weekdays and 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends) to video. Sen Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) proposed that the FCC implement prohibiting interactivity with commercial matter during children’s programming. In January 2007, both became amendments to the act. The FCC’s limit on the amount of commercial matter now applies to all digital video programming, free or pay, directed to children aged 12 and under.
“Mainly, the laws are catching up with new media to close up loopholes,” Jayne says. “And companies are ‘voluntarily’ agreeing to scale back their ads to kids and also agreeing to make their products more healthy.”
The Role of RDs in Advertising Regulation
What advice do industry experts have for dietitians looking to play a role in limiting the impact of food advertising on children?
“We must be as invasive and persuasive as the media that delivers the messages that convince kids they need to diet yet engages them enough to stay sedentary for just one more hour,” Jayne says. “We have to design our health education programs to compete with mass media, on less money and with less staff. Get used to the idea of ‘selling health’ just like an advertisement can do. Learn from these ads. Use slogans and bite-size your information; create visual, auditory, and movement-based education tools; and use interactive media.”
Caro stresses the importance of teaching parents how to use the food companies’ marketing techniques for packaging (food presentation) and promotion (theme meals).
“At mealtime, parents can play (softly) theme music from a popular cartoon or movie, let the kids dress up like the characters, and serve food consistent with the theme,” Caro says. “For a ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ night, prepare tropical foods, focusing on colorful fruits and vegetables. Explain to the kids that pirates prefer ‘fresh foods’ from the land and sea rather than machine-made food. After dinner, you can watch the movie for added effect. Lastly, dietitians should consider joining advocacy groups to pressure the industry to reduce nutrition-poor food marketing directed at youth.”
Tracy recommends that dietitians continue to promote healthy meals and snacks for kids and help parents understand that offering less nutritious foods along with a well-balanced diet is OK in moderation. “We can also educate children about nutrition,” she says. “Kids are pretty quick to learn, and if they understand why the colorful, fun foods they see on TV are OK to eat sometimes but not what they need to ‘grow big and strong,’ they may start to understand moderation. And to everyone’s surprise, they may grab the sliced strawberries that were served along with their cookies and milk.”
Kirschenbaum says that parents need to change the food environment in their household, including what they eat when they go out. “And health professionals need to follow suit with this, whether they have an overweight child at home or not,” he says. “We all have the personal and social responsibility to make these changes.”
— Maura Keller is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.
1. Gantz W, Schwartz N, Angelini JR, Rideout V. Food for thought: Television food advertising to children in the United States. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. March 2007. Available at: http://www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/7618.pdf
2. Harrison K, Marske AL. Nutritional content of foods advertised during the television programs children watch most. Am J Public Health. 2005;95(9):1568-1574.