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Children in Poverty – A Target for Food Marketing

Fern Gale Estrow, MS, RD, CDN

According to the recent 2003 Position Paper of the American Public Health Association[i] (APHA) children view 40,000 commercials each year with food being most frequently advertised product category on children’s television, accounting for over 50 percent of all ads.  They established that Children view an average of one food commercial every five minutes of television viewing time, and may see as many as three hours of food commercials each week.  Several studies have documented that the foods promoted on children’s television are predominantly high in sugar and fat, with almost no references to fruits or vegetables.  Because African American and Hispanic children, as well as most low-income children of all ethnic groups, watch more TV compared to middle and upper income white children they are at greater risk of being impacted.

It is unclear how much money is spent on food advertising specifically directed at children and adolescents, but as noted by Mary Story and Simone French in their recent publication on Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents[ii], estimates are available for overall youth-oriented advertising in the US.  In 1999 it was estimated that $1 billion was spent on media advertising to children, mostly on television.  In addition, over $4.5 billion was spent on youth-targeted promotions such as premiums, sampling, coupons, contests, and sweepstakes.  About $2 billion was spent on youth-targeted public relations, such as broadcast and print publicity, event marketing, and school relations.  In addition, roughly $3 billion was spent on packaging especially designed for children...  Most of this money was spent to promote highly processed, expensive, nutrient-poor food.  Messages about healthy eating, which tend to be less exciting and have smaller advertising budgets, get lost in the clutter.  Based on the above this comes to over 10 billion being spent to encourage children specifically to consume more food and beverages.  It is important to note that the 2003 budget for the NIH 5 A Day campaign was 3.5 million.  Admittedly there are some funds coming from CDC and other USDA initiatives, but they do not even approach 1 billion.  With Sixty percent of Americans who still don't know they need to consume five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day, and seventy percent of children and adults not eating enough fruits and vegetables for good health there is a bit of inequity here.  The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s publication "Pestering Parents" - How Food Companies Market Obesity to Children[iii], offers important insights into the allocation of funds from all aspects and this marketing phenomenon.

In school promotions are also critical.  The branding of children has lifelong implications to corporate bottom line and is money well spent from a company’s perspective.  This may take the form of in-school television advertising, vending machines, pouring rights, corporate advertising on billboards, books, bulletin boards, fundraisers, branded fast food, corporate sponsorship of sports and education programs and incentive reward programs.

The American Psychological Association acknowledged in their Association Task Force Advertising and Children Report of 2004[iv] that children under the age of eight are unable to critically comprehend televised advertising messages and is prone to accept advertiser messages as truthful, accurate and unbiased.  This can lead to unhealthy eating habits as evidenced by today’s youth obesity epidemic.  As a result the task force of the American Psychological Association (APA) recommends that advertising targeting children under the age of eight be restricted.

[i] American Public Health Association Policy Statement
Food Marketing and Advertising Directed at Children and Adolescents: Implications for Overweight - 2003 accessed 2/28/05

 [ii] Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the US Mary Story and Simone French – International Journal of Behavior, Nutrition and Physical Activity 2004; 1 (1): 3 (February,  2004 )  accessed 2/28/05.


[iii] "Pestering Parents" - How Food Companies Market Obesity to Children (November 2003) Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) accessed 2/28/05.

[iv] American Psychological Association Task Force Advertising and Children Report – 2004 (February 2004).  American Psychological Association accessed 2/28/05.

 Fern Gale Estrow, MS, RD, CDN (, a registered dietician with a consulting practice, is a nutrition advocate around issues of media literacy and food, who works with agencies, organizations, educational institutions and communities.  She focuses on improving health and quality of life through integration of food programs, nutrition education, and policy development and practice.  A leader in her profession, she speaks nationally to poverty, food insecurity and obesity.










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