Study Finds Food Is Top Product Advertised to Kids

By Sally Squires
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 28, 2007; 9:30 AM

Sex and violence are what many parents fear their children will consume too much of on television. But a new study finds that food is the top product served up to kids and teens on screen.

Released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the study is the largest ever conducted of television food marketing to children and teens.

It finds that "food is the number one product advertised to kids, followed by media such as music, video games and movies," said Vicky Rideout, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation's Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health. Rideout directed the study, which was conducted by Indiana University.

The study found that more than a third of commercials targeting children or adolescents are for candy and snacks--often high-fat, sugary foods that are likely to fuel the on-going childhood obesity epidemic.

Children eight to 12 years old watch the most food commercials, averaging 21 ads daily, according to the findings. That adds up to 7,600 per year, or nearly 51 hours annually. Teens, 13 to 17 years of age, see 17 food ads daily, or more than 6,000 per year, while youngsters two to seven years of age view 12 foods ads per day, or 4,400 yearly.

"The study is really important," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. "It's the first time in over a decade that anybody has looked at television advertising aimed at children. And it's the first time ever that anyone has looked at such a huge sample of ads."

To conduct the study, researchers analyzed more than 1,600 hours of television programming broadcast from late May to mid July in 2005, with additional sampling in September of that year. The team examined 30 times more television programming than has been included in previous studies. Unlike previous studies, it also went beyond traditional children's programming to include viewing times when ratings show children and teens are likely to be watching television.

Half of all the ads shown during children's shows are for food. Of all the ads in the study, 34 percent marketed candy and snacks, 28 percent were for cereal and 10 percent promoted fast foods.

By comparison, none of the commercials in the study promoted fruit or vegetables. Only four percent advertised dairy products--a rich source of calcium, which most children fall short in consuming, according to the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

"Data like this is always useful," said C. Lee Peeler, CEO of the National Advertising Review Council and head of a new food industry initiative on marketing to children. "The thing that is most interesting and useful is that it will allow trends to be established."

One thing to keep in mind, Peeler said, is that the report was conducted on television shown in 2005. "A lot has changed since then," he said.

Some companies, including Disney and Kraft, have begun new efforts to promote more active lifestyles and healthier food to children. In November, the National Advertising Council started a new food and beverage initiative aimed at children. The 11 companies participating in that effort represent two thirds of the products sold to children, Peeler said. Participants pledge that at least 50 percent of ads directed to children younger than 12 will be devoted either to "healthier products or healthier lifestyle messaging."

Last month, the Robert Wood Johnson foundation also announced formation of the Coalition for the Health of Children, a joint effort of the Ad Council, the American Heart Association, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Dreamworks Anmation SKG. This initiative plans to use the popular characters from the animated movie Shrek to deliver healthier eating and physical activity messages to kids.

But others say those measures are not enough to halt the childhood obesity epidemic. The latest statistics suggest that if rates of overweight and obese children continue to soar, today's youngsters could be the first in generations to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, due to weight-related chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and premature heart disease.

"Almost all the food marketed to kids is of poor nutritional value," Wootan said. "Most of the ads are for candy, soft drinks and fast foods. They didn't find any fruit and vegetables ads. It's certainly up to parents to feed their kids a healthy diet. But getting kids to eat a lot more healthfully would be a lot easier if parents didn't have to contend with $12 billion of junk food advertising every year."

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