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Food Marketing and Advertising Directed at Children and Adolescents: Implications for Overweight

Policy Date: 11/18/2003
Policy Number: 200317

The growing epidemic of overweight children has brought attention to the possible role that food and beverage advertising and marketing may play in influencing eating behaviors of youth. In recent years, the food and beverage industry has viewed children and adolescents as a major market force because of their spending power, purchasing influence, and as future adult consumers.1,2 As a result, they are now the target of intense and aggressive food marketing and advertising efforts.3-9 Multiple techniques and channels are used to reach youth, beginning when they are toddlers, to foster brand-building and encourage product use. These food marketing channels include television advertising, in-school marketing, product placements, kids clubs, the Internet, toys and products with brand logos, and youth-targeted promotions, such as cross-selling and tie-ins. Foods marketed to children are predominantly high in sugar and fat.10-15
Television advertising and in-school marketing are two of the most prevalent forms of marketing to children. Television is the largest source of media messages about food to children, especially younger children. The average child or adolescent watches an average of three hours of television per day.16 It is estimated that children may view as many as 40,000 commercials each year.1 Food is the most frequently advertised product category on children’s television, accounting for over 50 percent of all ads.10-12 Children view an average of one food commercial every five minutes of television viewing time, and may see as many as three hours of food commercials each week.11 Several studies have documented that the foods promoted on children’s television are predominantly high in sugar and fat, with almost no references to fruits or vegetables.10-12,14 Because African American and Hispanic children, as well as most low-income children of all ethnic groups, watch more TV compared to middle and upper income white children17,18 they are exposed to more food ads.
In-school commercial activities related to food and beverages include: 1) product sales, through vending machines, soft drink “pouring-rights” agreements (exclusive contracts), branded fast food, and fundraisers; 2) direct advertising, such as food and beverage ads in schools; and 3) indirect advertising, such as corporate-sponsored educational programs, sports sponsorships, and incentive programs using contests and coupons.19,20 The majority of the foods sold in vending machines and school stores are energy dense, low-nutrient foods,21 which promotes purchasing and consumption of these foods while children are captive in an environment that is dedicated to education.
Studies suggest that food advertising and marketing is associated with more favorable attitudes, preferences and behaviors among children towards the advertised food product.12,13,22-24 The research evidence is strong showing that children’s food preferences and food purchase requests for high sugar and high fat foods are influenced by television exposure to food advertising.12,13,22-24 A recent FAO/WHO report concluded that while the evidence that the heavy marketing of fast food outlets and energy-dense, micronutrient-poor foods and beverages to children causes obesity is not unequivocal, sufficient indirect evidence exists to place this practice in the “probable” category for increasing risk of obesity.25 Likewise, the relationship between high sugar intake and dental caries is of concern.
Children and adolescents are currently being exposed to an increasing and unprecedented amount of food advertising and marketing through a wide range of venues. Young children have few defenses against such ads, and older children and teens can be manipulated and misled by them.1 Children are a vulnerable group that should be protected from commercial influences that may adversely affect weight status and subsequent health problems. APHA therefore:
1. Encourages the federal government, states and school districts to designate schools as food advertising-free zones, where children and adolescents can pursue learning free of commercial influences and pressures;
2. Encourages collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Congress, state health and education agencies, school districts, and state and local legislatures to develop school policies that promote a healthful eating environment, such as the provision of healthier foods and bottled water while prohibiting the sale of soft drinks and other high-calorie, low-nutrition foods during the school day;
3. Urges legislation to eliminate food advertising aimed at young children on children’s television programs, such as morning, after-school, and weekend children’s programs. Interim means should also be explored, such as having stricter limitations on the amount of advertising permitted on children’s television or placing a monetary surcharge on advertising for high–calorie, low-nutrition foods targeted at youth which would be used to develop nutrition and physical activity media campaigns and promotion programs to be overseen by a non-profit or governmental organization;
4. Encourages colloboration among nonprofit and governmental organizations to develop guidelines for responsible food advertising and marketing aimed at children and adolescents, and urges food companies, advertising agencies and broadcasters to follow these guidelines, once they are developed;
5. Urges the White House or Surgeon General to convene a conference on food marketing and advertising aimed at children and adolescents and its effects on their health and well-being and develop recommendations to address this issue;
6. Urges Congress and the Administration to appropriate funding for the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the effects of food advertising and marketing on health behaviors of children and adolescents; and
7. Urges the development and dissemination of school-based initiatives to teach children, adolescents and their parents consumer media literacy.
1. Strasburger VC. Children and TV advertising: nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. J Dev Behav Pediatr 2001;22:185-187.
2. McNeal J. Tapping the three kids’ markets. American Demographics 1998;20:37-41.
3. Kraak V, Pelletier DL. The influence of commercialism on the food purchasing behavior of children and teenage youth. Fam Econ Nutr Rev 1998;11:15-24.
4. Kraak V, Pelletier DL. How marketers reach young consumers: Implications for nutrition education and health promotion campaigns. Fam Econ Nutr Rev 1998;11:31-41.
5. Consumers Union Education Services. Captive Kids: Commercial Pressures on Kids at School. Yonkers, NY: Consumers Union of United States, 1995.
6. Strasburger VC, Donnerstein E. Children, adolescents, and the media: issues and solutions. Pediatrics 1999;103:129-139.
7. Valkenburg PM. Media and youth consumerism. J Adolesc Health 2000;27:52-56.
8. American Academy of Pediatrics. Children, adolescents, and advertising. Pediatrics 1995;95:295-297.
9. Fried EJ, Nestle M. The growing political movement against soft drinks in schools. JAMA 2002;288:2181.
10. Gamble M, Cotunga N. A quarter century of TV food advertising targeted at children. Am J Health Behav 1999;23:261-267.
11. Kotz K, Story M. Food advertisements during children’s Saturday morning television programming: Are they consistent with dietary recommendations? J Am Diet Assoc 1994;94:1296-1300.
12. Coon KA, Tucker KL. Television and children’s consumption patterns. A review of the literature. Minerva Pediatr 2002;54:423-436.
13. Taras HL, Sallis JF, Patterson TL, Nader PR, Nelson JA. Television’s influence on children’s diet and physical activity. J Dev Behav Pediatr 1989;10:176-180.
14. Taras HL, Gage M. Advertised foods on children’s television. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 1995;149:649-652.
15. Levine J. Food industry marketing in elementary schools: implications for school health professionals. J Sch Health 1999;69:290-291.
16. American Academy of Pediatrics. Children, adolescents, and television. Pediatrics 2001;107:423-426.
17. Gentile DA, Walsh DA. A normative study of family media habits. Appl Dev Psych 2002;23:157-178.
18. Roberts DF, Foehr UG, Rideont VJ, Brodie M. Kids, Media and the New Millenium. A Kaiser Family Foundation Report, Menlo Park, CA: J Kaiser Family Foundation, 1999.
19. US General Accounting Office. Public education: Commercial activities in schools. Report to congressional requesters. GAO/HEHS-00-156. US General Accounting Office, 2000.
20. Nestle M. Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.
21. Nestle M. Soft drink “pouring rights”: marketing empty calories to children. Public Health Rep 2000;115:308-319.
22. Isler L, Popper HT, Ward S. Children’s purchase requests and parental responses: results from a diary study. J Advert Res 1987;27:28-39.
23. Horgan KB, Choate M, Brownell KD. Television food advertising. In: Singer DG, Singer JL, eds. Handbook of Children and Media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2001:447-461.
24. Borzekowski DL, Robinson TN. The 30-second effect: an experiment revealing the impact of television commercials on food preferences of preschoolers. J Am Diet Assoc 2001;101:42-46.
25. World Health Organization. Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation on Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Disease. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2003.