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TV ads market junk food
to kids, new study finds
photo to enlarge
by Kwame Ross
communication professor Kristen Harrison's latest
study on media effects on children and adolescents
finds that 78 percent of the food advertised during
TV programs children ages 6 to 11 watch most is junk
— For young Americans, the “food landscape” in television
advertising is packed with junk food, according to a new study.
The study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
is the first to explore the nutritional composition of foods advertised
to children using Nutrition Facts labeling.
Nutrient-poor high-sugar foods – candy, sweets and soft drinks
– dominate (nearly 44 percent) the foods advertised during the
TV programs children ages 6 to 11 watch most, the analysis found. Convenience/fast
foods made up 34.2 percent of the advertisements during the programs.
There are not yet any recommended daily values (RDVs) for sugar, but
these two groups of foods “exceed the RDVs of fat, saturated fat
and sodium, and fail to provide the RDVs of fiber and certain vitamins
and minerals,” said Kristen Harrison, the lead author of the study.
A 2,000-calorie-a-day diet of foods in the child-audience ads “would
exceed the RDV for sodium and provide nearly a cup of sugar,”
said Harrison, a professor of speech
communication at Illinois and an expert on media effects on children
“How many kids actually eat a diet like that, I can’t say,”
she said. “But it’s important to note that this is the nutritional
composition of the diet being marketed to kids and their families, and
research shows that the more they are exposed to such advertising, the
more likely they are to buy the advertised foods. So, heavy TV viewers
probably follow a diet more similar to the TV-advertised diet than do
Given the food industry’s heavy marketing of convenience/fast
foods and other refined, high-calorie products, Harrison said, “It
is becoming increasingly difficult for parents to maintain the moderation
necessary to preserve their children’s health.”
Findings of the study appear in the September issue of the American
Journal of Public Health in an article titled “Nutritional Content
of Foods Advertised During the Television Programs Children Watch Most.”
Harrison’s co-author was Amy Marske, a graduate student at the
time of the study and now a high school teacher in Chicago.
• Snack-time eating in TV advertising is depicted more often than
breakfast, lunch and dinner combined. More than half of all eating is
depicted in locations “rarely associated with mealtime eating”
such as in cars or outdoors.
• Junk-food ads dominated, with far fewer ads for breads and cereals.
The ads offered “little representation” of fruits and vegetables,
dairy foods, meats, poultry and fish.
• Child actors’ body size was unrelated to their eating
behavior, “suggesting, erroneously, that eating and body weight
are not related,” Harrison said.
• Most ads featured no health-related messages. Of the few that
did, the most common message was that advertised foods contained “some
Harrison and Marske also evaluated the nutritional content of food advertised
to adults during the most popular TV shows. They found that those ads
were dominated (57.1 percent) by convenience/fast foods, fat and sodium.
“An individual eating a 2,000-calorie diet composed of the general-audience
foods would consume considerably more than the RDVs of fat, saturated
fat and sodium, while ingesting only a fraction of the RDVs of fiber,
vitamin C, calcium and iron.”
Harrison said kids’ consumption of TV ads that tout poor food
choices is especially troubling because childhood obesity is on the
rise, TV advertising influences children’s food purchases and
purchase requests, and kids see so many TV food ads a day.
Harrison and Marske tallied an average of 10.65 food advertisements
per hour in their sample. Other research has found that preteens watch
on average nearly three hours of television a day, meaning that “the
typical child aged 6-11 years would be exposed to approximately 11,000
food advertisements each year.”
The researchers taped 40 hours of TV programming that aired in north-central
Illinois between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. for five weeks. Programs were rated
most popular nationwide among viewers aged 6-11 years according to Nielsen
The sample consisted of the 10 most-viewed hours from each of four sources:
cable programs such as “SpongeBob SquarePants”; Saturday
network programs such as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”;
syndicated programs such as “Everybody Loves Raymond”; and
network primetime programs such as “American Idol.”
The sample yielded 1,424 advertisements, 426 (or 29.9 percent) of them
for food products.
The researchers then coded each ad as being aimed at a child or an adult
audience; foods by type; verbal or visual health-related messages; and
characteristics of all human characters.
The second part of the analysis focused on the nutritional breakdown
of the advertised foods using data obtained from Nutrition Facts labels.
Heavily advertised foods included Burger King Kids Meal chicken tenders,
Jell-O Pudding Bites (chocolate and vanilla), McDonald’s Happy
Meal french fries, Post Fruity Pebbles cereal and Wendy’s Kid’s
Meal crispy chicken nuggets.
Despite the heavy marketing of such foods, Harrison and her co-author
say “parental involvement is the most important factor in the
determination of the family diet.”
“Parents can work to maintain the integrity of the family pantry
not only through selective shopping, but also through efforts to instruct
their children about food and nutrition.”
Also, because research demonstrates a connection between TV viewing
and obesity for children and adults alike, parents could curb eating
in their household by limiting their children’s – and their
own – television viewing.
Other adults should join parents in the “food fight” to
combat childhood obesity, Harrison said. The food industry and advertisers,
for example, “bear some responsibility for peddling nutritionally
inadequate foods so aggressively to kids.”
“Also, the continued investment of the medical and public health
communities will be needed if parents are to be successful in helping
their children resist the influence of commercial food advertising.”