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Kids See Fewer Ads for Sweets, More for Fast Food

Study Shows Some Improvement in TV Ads Targeting Kids Since 2003
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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.

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