It Pays to Advertise: Junk Food Marketing to Children
Food marketing is pervasive in the lives of children and adolescents. Food and beverage companies spent $1.6 billion in 2006 to reach this important market. On television, online and even in schools, youth are regularly exposed to messages encouraging them to eat unhealthy foods, at a time when they need to establish healthy eating habits. One in three American children and adolescents is overweight or obese, conditions that contribute to poor health over their whole lifetimes. Restricting unhealthy food marketing to youth is one important step addressing this crisis.
Television advertisements aimed at children predominately feature unhealthy foods, often served in unhealthy settings. A diet composed of foods marketed to children on television would consist mainly of cereal, fast food and snacks eaten outside of normal mealtimes in large servings.
Outside of television, the Internet offers food companies the chance to engage youth in games and activities focused on their brands. Online advertising provides companies with a much cheaper method for youth to
spend longer periods of time exposed to advertising for the same unhealthy products seen on television.
Food advertising on television impacts children’s preferences for particular categories and brands of food, increases their requests to parents for the advertised foods and leads to increased consumption of unhealthy foods. In one study, children ate more snacks while watching shows with food advertisements, whether or not they reported feeling hungry.
Research on media literacy indicates that it takes repeated mental effort to resist advertisements for tempting foods. Because youth are exposed to so many marketing messages and because even older children need prompting to think critically about advertisements, it is hard to argue that youth can consistently fight off these messages on
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) considered rulemaking in the late 1970s to limit marketing sugary foods to children, but Congress put a stop to it. In response to renewed attention to childhood obesity, several food companies have chosen to self-regulate under the Children’s
Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), but actual reductions in unhealthy foods marketed to youth have been quite limited.
The federal government in 2011 issued preliminary, voluntary Principles to recommend a consistent nutrition standard for industry self-regulation. The food industry heavily criticized the Principles as too strict and burdensome, even though, if enacted, they would have been entirely voluntary. Some of the very companies participating in the
self-regulatory efforts lobbied to weaken the Principles, and ultimately Congress blocked the proposal, leaving no significant federal regulation or even guidance on food marketing to children.
The public health challenge of increasing childhood obesity must be addressed. Improving the nutritional environment for youth will require many policy changes. It’s time to ask the question: Is it appropriate to advertise unhealthy foods to children and adolescents?