Fast Food Ads Aimed at Children on the Rise

Fran Lowry

July 06, 2010

July 6, 2010 — Exposure to television advertisements for fast food among children increased by as much as 20.4% between 2003 and 2007, whereas advertisements for beverages and sweets declined, according to a new study published online July 5 in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

"US children have poor diets with an excess intake of fat, sugar, sodium, sweetened beverages, and low-nutrient snacks while fruit, vegetable, and micronutrient intake is lower than recommended," write Lisa M. Powell, PhD, and colleagues from the University of Illinois in Chicago. "There has been an upward trend in total energy intake derived from away-from-home, particularly fast food, outlets. Excess fat and sugar intake and consumption of items such as sugar-sweetened beverages and fast food have been linked with higher energy intake and obesity."

Television is the main advertising medium to reach children, and there is strong evidence that television advertising influences children's dietary intake. Since 2006, major food companies in the United States have pledged to devote some of their child-targeted advertising to promoting healthier products and encouraging good nutrition, the authors write.

The aim of this study was to examine recent trends in food advertising seen by American children and adolescents.

The researchers assessed total annual exposure to food advertising for 2003, 2005, and 2007, using television ratings data from Nielsen Media Research. The data were assessed for children in 3 separate age groups: 2 to 5 years, 6 to 11 years, and 12 to 17 years. The researchers also examined changes in exposure to advertisements for beverages, sweets, and fast food restaurants.

They found that in 2003, children aged 2 to 5, 6 to 11, and 12 to 17 years saw, on average, 13.3, 13.6, and 13.1 food advertisements per day, respectively. By 2007, that number fell by 13.7% to 11.5 advertisements per day in the youngest children and by 3.7% to 13.1 advertisements per day for the 6- to11-year-olds. In contrast, exposure to food advertisements increased by 3.7% to 13.6 advertisements per day in teenagers.

Exposure to advertisements for sweets fell 41% in children aged 2 to 5 years, 29.3% in children aged 6 to 11 years, and 12.1% in 12- to 17-year-olds. Beverage advertisements were down 27% to 30% across all age groups, with substantial decreases in exposure to advertisements for sugar-sweetened beverages such as fruit drinks and regular soft drinks.

However, exposure to fast food advertisements increased by 4.7% among children aged 2 to 5 years, by 12.2% in children aged 6 to 11 years, and by 20.4% in children aged 12 to 17 years between 2003 and 2007.

The most frequent fast food advertisements aimed at children of all ages were for McDonald's. Children aged 6 to 11 years saw the most McDonald's advertisements, which suggests targeted branding, the authors write. Burger King advertisement exposure also was increased among 6- to 11-year-olds. Exposure to advertisements for Subway, Taco Bell, and KFC also increased among 2- to 5-year-olds and 6- to 11-year-olds, but advertisements seen by children in those age groups continued to be dominated by McDonald's and Burger King, the authors write.

The study also found that black children in all age groups in all 3 years (2003, 2005, and 2007) saw more food advertisements per day compared with white children. In addition, the racial gap in exposure to food advertising grew between 2003 and 2007, particularly for fast food advertisements.

By 2007, black children aged 2 to 5, 6 to 11, and 12 to 17 years saw 1.5, 1.4, and 1.6 times as many food advertisements per day, respectively, compared with white children of the same ages. They also had more than double the rate of increase in exposure to fast food advertisements compared with white children.

"The increases in exposure to fast food advertising, particularly among teens, suggest that greater scrutiny is needed going forward in this area," the study authors write.

They conclude: "A number of positive changes have occurred in children's exposure to food advertising. Continued monitoring of food advertising exposure along with nutritional analyses is needed to further assess self-regulatory pledges. The bar was set so low...that the move to 'better for-you' advertising is likely to be inadequate. Rather, regulatory calls requiring 'good-for-you' advertising for healthy products may lead companies to compete to reformulate products and to make the monetary investments and harness the effective persuasion techniques typically used to market unhealthy foods to children."

Support for the study was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Bridging the Gap Program for the ImpacTeen Project. Dr. Powell has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. Published online July 5, 2010.

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