July 6, 2010 -- Children are seeing fewer commercials hawking cookies, candy bars, and sugar-sweetened beverages, but more TV ads for fast-food restaurants, according to a new study published online in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
“There have been some positive changes, but fast-food advertising went up quite a bit from 2003 to 2007,” says Lisa Powell, PhD, a research professor and senior research scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s a mixed bag.”
Childhood obesity is on the rise in the U.S., and weight-related diseases and conditions previously only seen in adults such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes are now increasingly being diagnosed in children.
The Institute of Medicine has stated that there is evidence that short-term food choices among children aged 2 to 11 are influenced by TV ads. As a result, several major U.S. food companies created the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. Companies involved in this pact -- about 16 to date -- pledged to devote at least 50% of their child-targeted advertising to promote “better for you” products. The definition of "better for you" varies from company to company, as does exactly what is categorized as children’s TV.
“The new research provides a first glance on this data, but we need to continue to monitor to see what happened after 2007,” Powell says. Some of the companies involved in this initiative had not fully implemented their strategies at the time the data was collected and analyzed.
“Some of the news is good, but we haven’t made huge strides,” she says. “This study only examines TV. But food companies are moving into digital media, so if you're concerned about food ads, you should replace sedentary TV time with physical activity. Or if you need downtime, replace TV with reading,” she suggests.
Some Positive Strides Seen
The researchers looked at television ratings data in 2003, 2005, and 2007. They divided ads into beverages, cereal, fast-food restaurants, full-service restaurants, snacks, sweets, and others. Sweets included candy bars, gum, cookies, pastries, and other sweets.
In 2007, children watched an average of 3.5 hours of TV every day. Overall, food TV ads fell by 13.7% among children aged 2 through 5 and 3.7% among those aged 6 to 11 from 2003 to 2007, but food ads increased by 3.7% among teens during this same time.
TV ads for sweets decreased from 2003 to 2007. Specifically, there was a 41% decrease of exposure to ads for sweets among 2- to 5-year-olds, a 29.3% decrease among 6- to 11-year-olds, and a 12.1 % decrease seen among 12- to 17-year-olds. Commercials for sweetened beverages decreased by about 27% to 30% among different age groups , the study showed.
Exposure to ads for bottled water and diet soft drinks increased for all age groups.
Fast-food TV ads, however, increased by 4.7% among children aged 2 to 5, 12.2% among kids aged 6 to 12, and 20.4% among teens aged 12 to 16 from 2003 to 2007, the study showed.
The researchers also looked at the racial gap in TV food advertising and found some important distinctions. For example, African-American children saw 1.4 to 1.6 times as many food ads each day as their white counterparts, and African-American children and teens saw double when it came to exposure to fast-food ads per day when compared with white children.
More Corporate Responsibility Needed
Michael Mink, PhD, an assistant professor at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga., recently published a study that found that making food choices based on TV advertising results in a very imbalanced diet. His findings were published in the June issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
“The number of sweets and beverage ads did go down, while fast food increased in the new study. And that is an equal trade-off, but not necessarily a good one,” he says. “Companies need to focus on marketing and creating healthier foods and convincing people to eat better.
“They make a lot of money off of foods that they know are unhealthy, and there have to be ways to make money on healthy foods,” Mink says. His mantra? “If its advertised on TV, it’s probably not good for you."
“This may be a good sign, albeit of relatively small magnitude,” says Scott Kahan, MD, MPH, co-director of George Washington University Weight Management Program in Washington, D.C.” Although children are slightly seeing fewer TV ads for sweets and sugary drinks, they're seeing much more marketing for fast food.”
“The nutrition and obesity communities have been leaning on the food industry to exert corporate responsibility when it comes to food advertising to kids, particularly young kids,” he tells WebMD. "Marketing to young kids, especially the youngest kids, is particularly manipulative. Preying on young kids (and, by extension, their parents) by using cartoon characters, superheroes, and the like in order to promote unhealthful foods is inappropriate and irresponsible."