Food and Beverage Advertising to Children on U.S. Television: Did National Food Advertisers Respond?

By Warren, Ron; Wicks, Jan LeBlanc et al. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Food and Beverage Advertising to Children on U.S. Television: Did National Food Advertisers Respond?


Warren, Ron, Wicks, Jan LeBlanc, Wicks, Robert H., Fosu, Ignatius, Chung, Donghung, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


In 2005, after criticism of the U.S. food industry for advertising's role in childhood obesity, national advertisers announced new policies to reduce children's exposure to ads for unhealthy foods. However, limits on these policies suggested that the food advertisements viewed by children would not change significantly. Content analysis was conducted on television food advertisements aired just before and one year after these announcements. The advertisements were coded for product type, persuasive appeals, and production techniques. The results suggest few changes in food advertising seen by children.

Childhood obesity is an acute concern for public health officials. The percentage of overweight and obese children in the United States has more than tripled over the past thirty years,1 and research has documented significant increases in medical complications linked to childhood obesity.2 Anderson, Butcher, and Levine identified several contributors to childhood obesity, including genetics, reduced rates of physical activity, and increased consumption of high-calorie, low-nutrition foods.3 The study also concluded that increases in the marketing and consumption of manufactured foods contribute to childhood obesity.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) reported strong evidence that the marketing of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods influences children's diets.4 The IOM called on advertisers to promote healthy foods for children. In 2005, several major national advertisers announced new marketing policies to curtail the advertisement of unhealthy foods to children under twelve years old. Hence, it is important to examine whether U.S. companies are effectively self-regulating to help slow rising child obesity rates.

A content analysis of food and beverage advertising was conducted on programming from broadcast and cable networks with potentially large child audiences. One goal was to discover whether food advertisers have altered their marketing messages to children. A second goal was to consider whether food advertising uses persuasive and production techniques that could potentially distract children from pertinent product claims. Finally, this study compares food advertisements in children's programming to those in general audience programs aired at times when large child audiences view television.

Literature Review

Television is the single largest media source of messages about food, and television advertising presents a skewed picture of foods and diets.5 Advertisers spend more than $2.5 billion per year to promote restaurants and $2 billion to promote other food products.6 Young children will see an average of 4,400 food advertisements per year and older children (ages 8 to 12) will see 7,600 food advertisements.7 Many of these advertisements are for high-calorie, low-nutrition foods.8

Across previous content analyses, unhealthy foods represented the majority of television food advertising on children's programming.9 Fastfood restaurants were the most frequent advertisers in Henderson and Kelly's analysis, representing as much as one third of child-targeted advertising in other studies.10 Fast food promotions appear frequently on programs for preschool children, representing 100% of food-related promotional messages on Playhouse Disney, 59% on PBS Kids, and 46% on Nick Junior in one study.11 Cereals constituted from one-third to more than half of food ads.12 Soda advertising represented at least 10% of all food ads.13

By contrast, few commercials for healthy food products such as fruits, vegetables, and milk are directed to children. Several content analyses reported fewer than 5% of all food commercials were for healthy foods.14 Byrd-Bredbenner and Grasso found fats, oils, and sweets were advertised almost four times as much as the recommended proportion of such foods in a healthy diet.15 Harrison and Marske concluded a diet composed of advertised foods would exceed medically recommended consumption levels of saturated fat, sodium, and sugar. …

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