Food and Beverage Advertising on U.S. Television: A Comparison of Child-Targeted versus General Audience Commercials

By Warren, Ron; Wicks, Robert H. et al. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Food and Beverage Advertising on U.S. Television: A Comparison of Child-Targeted versus General Audience Commercials


Warren, Ron, Wicks, Robert H., Wicks, Jan LeBlanc, Fosu, Ignatius, Chung, Donghung, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


Over the last 30 years, the percentage of U.S. children classified as overweight and obese has more than tripled (Anderson and Butcher, 2006; Centers for Disease Control, 2004). The American Academy of Pediatrics notes similar increases in medical complications due to childhood obesity, including Type 2 diabetes, respiratory illness, hypertension, sleep disorders, and depression (Brown, Sibille, Phelps, and McFarlane, 2002). Anderson and Butcher (2006) identified a set of complementary factors contributing to childhood obesity. Most factors were individual in nature, including genetics, reduced rates of physical activity, and increased consumption of high-calorie, low-nutrition foods and beverages (particularly soft drinks). Further, the review noted that the manufactured food industry has witnessed wholesale change since the 1970s (for example, an increased marketing and consumption of convenience foods such as frozen entrees).

This trend spawned a debate about the role that media play in childhood obesity. Most of the concern about the TV-obesity link is based on correlational data. The average child spends over 5 hours a day with media (Roberts and Foehr, 2004), which has caused concern that sedentary media use constitutes a long-term obesity risk (Viner and Cole, 2005). Researchers (Taros and Gage, 1995) also noted an increase in the number of ads in children's media, particularly television. Separate reports (Domestic Advertising, 2003, 2006; Harris, Kaufman, Martinez, and Price, 2002) have noted better than 20% increases in total U.S. food advertising spending from 1995 to 1999 and from 2002 to 2005. Over those periods, 65-70% of spending was devoted to television. Anderson and Butcher (2006) noted that significant increases in childhood obesity rates correspond to the proliferation of advertising-supported, cable television channels during the 1990s.

Food advertising's direct influence on children's diets is a part of this debate. Two reviews (Carter, 2006; Hastings et al., 2003) concluded that television ads were a probable, albeit small, influence on children's food preferences. Recent evidence has suggested direct correlations between food advertising and children's purchase requests (Borzekowski and Robinson, 2001; O'Dougherty, Story, and Stang, 2006) and overall nutritional intake (Vereecken, Todd, Roberts, Mulvihill, & Maes, 2006). One study (Lobstein & Dibb, 2005) found a strong correlation between the amount of advertising (especially for "empty calorie" foods) and the proportion of over-weight children in 10 countries, including the United States.

These numbers have generated considerable policy attention. Recent calls for investigations of food marketing's (particularly television advertising) influence on children's diets (Burros, 2005) have intensified this debate. Advertisers and television networks responded in 2005 when companies such as Kraft and McDonald's announced plans to stop marketing unhealthy foods to children under age 11 (Romano & Becker, 2005). The Nickelodeon cable network also announced plans to devote a percentage of program time to healthier eating and exercise. Given this context, this study presents a content analysis of 2006 food and beverage advertising on U.S. television networks with potentially large child audiences. An examination of persuasive appeals and production techniques, particularly those suggested by child development theories, will provide information about the food advertising landscape that children confront.

Advertised Products

Food products have constituted a large portion of TV advertising, accounting for as much as half of all child-targeted advertising (Harrison & Marske, 2005; Kunkel & Gantz, 1992). Previous content analyses have indicated a consistent group of products that dominate food advertising. Foremost among these are fast- food restaurants (Byrd-Bredbenner & Grasso, 1999; Harrison & Marske, 2005), sweetened cereals (Connor, 2006; Kunkel & Gantz, 1992; Lewis & Hill, 1998), and sweetened/soft drinks (Henderson & Kelly, 2005). …

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