The number of TV ads that children see for so-called "junk" foods has not increased over the last 30 years, says the Federal Trade Commission. TV food marketing critics have argued that a rise in such ads corresponds to the rise in childhood obesity. Critics, however, pointed to their own data that diverges dramatically from the FTC's.
According to a survey released by the FTC on Friday, kids in 2004 were seeing fewer advertisements--and fewer TV food commercials-- than they were in 1977, although they were seeing more of those food ads in children's shows.
"Our data does not support the view that children are exposed to more TV food ads today," said the FTC.
They continued to say instead that the viewing of such ads has fallen by about 9%. The FTC also says that there were not more ads for low nutrition foods in 2004 than there were in 1977, although the FTC had to concede that means those foods dominate just as much in 2004 as they did in 1977. Currently, almost 95% of the food ads on television are pitching fast foods and restaurants, high-sugared cereal, desserts, sweets, snacks, and sweetened drinks.
Friday's announcement was actually the formal release of information the FTC first teased at a conference on obesity and food marketing back in July 2005. So, why did it take almost two years to release the study. "Data analysis can sometimes take a long time to do to make sure you cross all the t's and dot the i's," said Michael Salinger, director of the FTC's bureau of economics. The principal authors of the study were economists with the bureau.
An FTC spokesperson had not returned a call for comment on why it had taken almost two years to formally release the findings.
According to the study, kids ages 2-11 saw an average of 18,300 paid ads in 2004, based on FTC's analysis of Nielsen data for a four-week period projected to an annual estimate. That is actually down from the 19,700 they averaged according to a 1977 FTC study. In 2004 they saw approximately 5,500 food ads, down from the 6,100 food ads the FTC calculates they saw in 1977 (it had to supplement its report with "other data from the period).
The FTC concedes its 2004 calculation of kids ad viewing is at odds with some others studies that put that figure at almost double that. The FTC, however, sticks to the study findings.
"We have to believe that the FTC has taken a comprehensive, objective look at advertising to kids and their conclusions suggest that the connection between marketing and obesity is more complex and tenuous than many claim," says Adonis Hoffman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "I think you have to look at the FTC data and compare it to the Kaiser data and ask very tough questions."
The Kaiser Family Foundation concluded in a 2005 study released in March that kids 8-12 see the most food ads on TV at about 7,600 a year, while children 2-7 see about 4,400 a year.
"In light of food industry and advertisers efforts to develop more responsible messages and healthier products," said Hoffman, "this suggests that the industry is moving in the right direction."
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition polic for the Center for Science in the Public Interest says that one explanation for the FTC figures, if they are correct, is that companies are turning to other forms of marketing, including spokescharacters on packaging and online advergaming, as well as marketing in schools. "So you don't need as much TV advertising." Overall marketing aimed at chilren has doubled over the last decade or so, she says, but TV is only one way in which companies market junk food to kids."
In fact, the study was released just as the FTC prepares to collect information on food marketers about all forms of marketing to kids, including on line.