Food companies beam an average of 21 product ads per day at American pre-teens, most of which are for candy, snacks, soft drinks, and fast food, concludes a report released today.
The report shows that a child aged 8 to 12 can be expected to view 7,600 ads promoting food in a single year.
The report confirms growing concern from advocates and some legislators that aggressive marketing is exposing kids to repeated messages promoting low-nutrition food. In a report last year, the Institute of Medicine pegged food marketing as a key contributor to rising childhood obesity rates.
Spots for candy, snacks, cereal, and fast food made up more than two-thirds of all food ads aimed at children, the study shows. None of the nearly 9,000 ads reviewed promoted fruits or vegetables.
According to the report, on a typical day the average American child aged 8 to 12 sees:
Five ads for candy and snacks, 4 for fast food, 4 for soft drinks, including soda, 3 for cereal, 2 for restaurants, 1 for prepared foods, 2 for dairy, water and 100 percent juices, meat, grains, vegetables, or fruit, combined.
Walter Gantz, PhD, a University of Indiana researcher who conducted the study, says children aged 2 to 7 view an average of 12 food advertisements a day. "For a year, that works out to be about 4,400 ads," he says.
At the same time, public service messages promoting healthy eating or exercise appear to young children only once every two or three days. "Clearly there’s plenty of room for growth in this area," Gantz says.
Eleven large food manufacturers pledged late last year to curtail marketing of unhealthy food during television programs. The companies said they would move to shift half of child-targeted ads to healthy foods or healthy lifestyles.
Companies are moving to act voluntarily under threat of new regulations from both Democrats and Republicans. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), says he’s watching for companies to take substantial steps toward curtailing junk food marketing.
"If things are not working together and things are not happening, I think you’re going to see a much stronger regulatory regime," he says. Brownback, a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, declined to say what specifically would need to happen to prevent him from pursuing new advertising laws.
Companies say the report, which took data from 2005, does not reflect recent changes in advertising practices. "The current landscape has dramatically changed," says Daniel Jaffee, executive vice-president of the Association of National Advertisers.
But others are skeptical industry efforts at self-regulation will be effective.
The voluntary pledge from manufacturers applies to half the ads on shows targeted to children, though such shows make up only about one-third of children’s average viewing time, says Vicky Rideout, a vice president at the Kaiser Foundation, a nonprofit focusing on health care issues.
"We’re talking about affecting about a sixth, maybe, of the ads that kids see," she says.
Dale Kunkel, PhD, a member of the Institute of Medicine committee on food advertising, says industry guidelines could allow companies to portray healthy activities without altering the quality of products they promote.
"That’s my worry. If you have the kids on skateboards eating Big Macs, then that’s OK," says Kunkel, a communications professor at the University of Arizona.
The companies’ voluntary guidelines will be monitored by an industry group called the National Advertising Review Council. C. Lee Peeler, the group’s CEO, says the guidelines mark the first time the industry has moved to substantially change its advertising.
"To say that self-regulation has failed when it hasn’t even started" is unfair, he says. "I would say, give us a chance, see what we can do."