U.S. Kids Bombarded By TV Food Ads

American kids are watching a staggering number of TV ads for candy and junk food, according to a new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation. In the largest study of its kind to track the magnitude and content of television food advertising that targets children, researchers looked at 1,638 hours of programming and analyzed nearly 9,000 food and beverage ads. They found that none of the food advertisements targeted to kids were for fruits or vegetables, and more than half the ads they saw were for candy, snacks or fast food.

The study found that the average American "tween"—boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 12—is now watching as many as 21 food ads per day, or 7,600 television ads every year. "The tweens are of particular concern; this is an age group whose members are getting allowances and just starting to make their own choices about food," says Vicky Rideout, a coauthor of the report and director of the Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health at the Kaiser Family Foundation. Teenagers see slightly fewer ads for food or drinks—about 6,000 per year, and smaller children, ages 2 to 7, see about 4,400 each year. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that the number of kids who are overweight or obese has doubled in the last 20 years.

While the Kaiser report did not directly link TV food advertising with the alarming rise in obesity rates among American kids, it provides thorough documentation of the massive amounts of food ads that young people see. Thirty-four percent of the ads were for candy and snacks, 25 percent were for cereal and 10 percent were for fast foods.

Health experts like Michael McGinnis, chair of the Institute of Medicine's Committee of Food Marketing to Children, see a clear connection between the advertising and obesity. "Marketing to kids is a $10 billion industry; new food  and beverage products for kids rose tenfold between 1994 and 2004," McGinnis says. "There is just no question that children's diets are affected quite directly by marketing, especially TV marketing." The Kaiser study, adds McGinnis, is important because it shows the magnitude of the problem, but also provides baseline data for any progress that might be made, whether it's through legal efforts or self-regulation from within the industry. "This is such a complex problem that industry has to be part of the solution," he argues.

In compiling the report, Kaiser researchers looked at a week's worth of content from 6 a.m. to midnight between May and September of 2005. They collected data from the parents of more than 4,000 children to determine how much time kids watched TV and how much time they spent watching children's shows (where the amount of ads are limited by law, but where more ads, 50 percent of all ad time, are for food) as well as non-children's programming.

Many of the kidcentric ads included sophisticated incentives to buy food. According to the study, about 19 percent of ads targeting children or teens offer a game or a toy, 20 percent include a push to a Web site, and 11 percent have a tie-in to a children's TV or movie character. Some ads combined several enticements at once. A Burger King ad kicks off with  Chewbacca from "Star Wars" roaring at the table and Darth Vader making his way through the restaurant, perhaps to make an order; "Star Wars" toys are promised with each meal. An ad for Fruit Roll-Ups includes a fun twist: tongue tattoos. And an advertisement for Nestlé Crunch opens with a girl on her bed, biting into the chocolate bar, when suddenly, a rapper with a microphone is singing just to her—that's because now that she's bought the chocolate she has a chance to win unlimited Napster music downloads for one year.

Food and beverage companies say they are moving to combat obesity. Last November, the Council of Better Business Bureaus and the National Advertising Review Council announced two new developments in the self-regulation by corporations of advertising to children under 12. The first is the creation of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a commitment from 11 of the leading food and beverage companies that market to kids to make 50 percent of children's advertising either geared to healthier products or to active lifestyles. "The food industry takes the issue of child obesity seriously; we have a role in addressing it and we know that responsible advertising is part of that commitment," says Brian Kennedy, a spokesperson for the Grocery Manufacturers/Food Products Association, which represents the world's leading food, beverage and consumer-products companies.

Some of the companies who signed up to market more nutritional foods include Coca-Cola, General Mills Inc., Hershey, Kellogg, Kraft, McDonald's and PepsiCo; it's estimated that the 11 companies in the program account for more than two thirds of all children's food-and-beverage-advertising expenditures. "This is a great first step, and many companies, like ours, have already been making individual efforts, but this is a chance to do it collectively," says Nancy Green, vice president for Health and Wellness at PepsiCo. The second development is an increased effort on the food-ad front by the Better Business Bureau's Children's Advertising Review Unit, which monitors advertising to kids and recommends changes when ads are misleading or depict things like unhealthy portion sizes.

The 2006 Institute of Medicine review of food marketing and children's diets recommended that if voluntary industry efforts are not successful, Congress should enact legislation to mandate a shift toward advertising healthier food options. Meanwhile other countries have already taken action; in November 2006, British regulators banned advertising of high-fat, salt and sugar foods to kids under 16, and government agencies voted to prohibit the use of popular characters and promotions in food advertising to kids.

The U.S. Congress has plenty of ammunition should it choose to take a stronger stand on the issue. The American Academy of Pediatrics has called for a ban on all junk-food advertising, and the Federal Communications Commission has recently formed a task force on media and childhood obesity. But for now, anyone with a remote control can quickly see that food advertising for kids is still going strong. Whether an ad shows a kid surfboarding through chocolate cereal or a cartoon animal offering a tween some chips, the message and its consequences for millions of American children remains the same: eat, drink and be chubby.