The food industry has been under pressure to reduce its marketing of unhealthy foods to children in recent years as the incidence of childhood obesity has risen. This latest study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, could add to growing concern about whether industry self-regulation of children’s advertising goes far enough, despite a number of initiatives that have been set up in an effort to ensure responsible advertising to children.
The research focuses on data from 2005 to 2006, so the fruits of some of industry's efforts, including the Council of Better Business Bureau's Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative - a voluntary self-regulation program for industry established in 2006 - will not be reflected in the results.
Researchers at the University of California Davis analyzed type and frequency of food advertising on Saturday morning and weekday afternoon television, during both English and Spanish-language American television programs.
“Study after study has documented the adverse health effects of food advertising targeting children and adolescents,” they wrote.
The authors found that nearly a third of commercials on children’s networks were for food, compared to a fifth during programming for a general audience. The majority of these (70 percent) were for foods that were high in sugar or fat.
In particular, the study sought to examine food advertising targeted at children on Spanish-language networks, as one possible contributing factor to high obesity rates among Hispanic Americans. They found that although the frequency of food advertising was about the same, Spanish-language networks showed a disproportionately large number of advertisements for fast food restaurants, at 46.7 percent of food ads, compared to 28.4 percent for all networks sampled.
Saturday morning television had the highest saturation of food advertising in both languages, with an average of one food product commercial every eight minutes. In addition, the researchers found that for every nutrition-based public service announcement, there were 63 advertisements for food products.
The study does not suggest regulating advertising to children. Rather, as an antidote to junk food commercials, the authors suggest that children should be provided with media literacy programs in an attempt to immunize them from the effects of food advertising.
“Such literacy training can help children and adolescents understand both the economic motivations behind food advertising and the strategies used by industry to increase desire for their products,” they wrote.
Advertising to adolescents
As children move into adolescence, they continue to be exposed to advertising for predominantly unhealthy foods during programs targeted at young people, such as music video programming on BET and MTV. While the most frequent food advertisements on children’s programming networks were for cereals, at 30.9 percent, the researchers found that there were no advertisements for cereals at all on MTV. Commercials on MTV were much more likely to be for fast food restaurants, accounting for 52.6 percent of food advertisements.
“Eighty percent of MTV food commercials were for items classified in 3 categories: fast food restaurants, sugar-added beverages and sweets,” they wrote.
Source: Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior
November-December 2009, Volume 41, Issue 6, Pages 406-413
“Frequency and Types of Foods Advertised on Saturday Morning and Weekday Afternoon English- and Spanish-Language American Television Programs”
Authors: Robert A. Bell, Diana Cassady, Jennifer Culp, Rina Alcalay