CHICAGO – There are far more ads for fast food and snacks on black-oriented TV than on channels with more general programming, researchers report in a provocative study that suggests a link to high obesity rates in black children.
The results come from a study that lasted just one week in the summer. Commercials on Black Entertainment Television, the nation's first black-targeted cable channel, were compared with ads during afternoon and evening shows on the WB network and Disney Channel.
Of the nearly 1,100 ads, more than half were for fast food and drinks, such as sodas.
About 66 percent of the fast-food ads were on BET, compared with 34 percent on WB and none on Disney. For drinks, 82 percent were on BET, 11 percent on WB and 6 percent on Disney; and for snacks, 60 percent were on BET, none on WB and 40 percent on Disney.
The study in a pediatric medical journal accompanies separate research: a study indicating kids consume an extra 167 calories, often from advertised foods, for every hour of TV they watch; and a report suggesting even preschoolers get fat from watching more than two hours of daily TV.
The articles appear in April's Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, a theme issue on media and children's health released Monday.
The studies clearly illustrate "that the media have disturbing potential to negatively affect many aspects of children's healthy development," Amy Jordan of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at University of Pennsylvania wrote in a journal editorial.
"Such evidence offers increasing support for the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that children older than 2 years spend no more than two hours per day with screen media, preferably educational screen media," Jordan said.
Still, Jordan said the ads study doesn't prove that a disproportionate number of commercials for unhealthy foods causes black kids to become overweight, and said more research is needed "to more convincingly directly tie exposure to effects."
Obesity affects about 18 percent of black children, compared with about 14 percent of white youngsters, according to 2001-02 data. The rate was almost 20 percent for Hispanics. New estimates coming later this week are expected to show the numbers have increased for both blacks and whites.
BET spokesman Michael Lewellen said BET's target audience is blacks aged 18 to 34 and said its programming "does not target children." He also questioned the study's methods since the researchers included ads shown during prime time, "when virtually all networks target adults."
The researchers examined ads shown from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. for one week last July. Programming generally was music videos on BET; cartoons and talk shows on WB; and cartoons and kid-oriented shows, including "That's So Raven" and "Kim Possible" on Disney. The same programming is offered during the school year, said Corliss Wilson Outley, a University of Minnesota researcher and the lead author.
While Disney is not an advertiser-supported channel, the researchers counted company-announced sponsors of Disney programs as commercials. McDonald's Corp. was the leading fast-food advertiser.
Outley said black children are an attractive target for fast-food companies because many live in neighborhoods with easier access to fast food than healthier food.
The goal is to "get kids hooked at a very early age" so they become lifelong customers, she said.
McDonald's spokesman Bill Whitman called the study "a bit misguided" and said McDonald's doesn't single out black children.
"Our marketing strategy encompasses young people as well as adults and we do that through various media and marketing strategies that cross all demographics," Whitman said.