Kids watch TV for about three and a half hours a day. They’re exposed to it as background many hours more. Advertizing on TV therefore remains the central vehicle brands use to reach kids. Ads are clever and compelling, and their effect on kids—especially young ones—is very clear. The Institute of Medicine reviewed the scientific literature and concluded that ads influence food consumption and that the current food and beverage marketing practices put children's long-term health at risk.
In 2006, in response to criticism from many health organizations and children advocates, the Council of Better Business Bureaus launched the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. There are a little more than a dozen major US food companies that joined the initiative, and these companies pledged to devote at least half of their child-targeted advertising to promote healthier or "better-for-you" products and encourage good nutrition and healthy lifestyles. "Better-for-you" is not clearly defined, and neither is “kids programming”, so it’s interesting to see how much has really changed since these voluntary limits on kids’ advertizing have been initiated.
A new study, led by Lisa Powel, and published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, looked at TV ratings from Nielsen Media Research to assess total yearly exposure to food advertising for the years 2003, 2005, and 2007. Trends of TV exposure to food advertising were analyzed by age and race.
The data comparing food ads in 2003 and 2007 exposes a few interesting trends:
• Ad quantity: In 2003 kids saw, on average, a little more than 13 food ads a day. By 2007, the number of food ads seen daily by very young kids (2-5 year-olds) fell by 13 percent to about 11.5 ads per day, decreased a little bit for kids 6-11 years, and increased a tad for adolescents (it's still above 13 ads a day for these older age groups).
• Food product categories: ads for beverages and sweets (candy bars and cookies) declined the most while exposure to ads for fast food restaurants increased the most. By 2007, fast food ads were the most frequently food ad seen by kids. In fact fast-food ads surpassed cereal ads in the 2-5 year-old programming by almost 2.5 ads-per-day. McDonald's is the most dominant marketer to kids, with Burger King coming in second.
• Racial disparity: African American kids in all age groups saw more food ads per-day than their white counterparts, and got a double dose of fast-foods ads compared to white kids. There were more food ads on African American targeted after-school and prime-time TV programs compared to general public programs, and the racial gap in exposure grew between 2003 and 2007.
Is self regulation working?
The study finds that among the 13 companies who pledged more responsibility in advertizing to kids by 2007 there were a few promising changes—overall ads aimed for young kids declined somewhat. The largest reductions were seen from Hershey, Coca-Cola, and Mars, companies that promised not to engage in child (under 12 year-old) directed advertizing. However, because the interpretation of “better for you” was left to food-makers “better for you” was often far from good enough (for example: sugary cereals may be better than a donut, but both aren’t a healthy breakfast). The pledge also regulates only advertizing to very young kids under the age of 12 years—the most vulnerable age group—while leaving out pre-teens and teens, who are still quite impressionable, but considered by this initiative fair game. Most importantly, membership in this initiative is voluntary, and many food companies that advertize to kids haven’t signed on.
The authors conclude:
“The bar was set so low, with more than 9 of 10 ads seen by children for products high in fat, sugar, or sodium, that the move to “better for- you” advertising is likely to be inadequate. Rather, regulatory calls requiring “good-for-you” advertising for healthy products may lead companies to compete to reformulate products and to make the monetary investments and harness the effective persuasion techniques typically used to market unhealthy foods to children.”
Do you think self-regulation can result in a real change in the food-ad landscape, or is self-regulation just a delaying tactic and a way for industry to set lenient rules in order to get regulators and the public off their back without changing much?
Related post: The TV diet and your health
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