Virtually all the TV food ads seen by young kids and almost all of them viewed by teenagers are for foods high in sugar, fat, or sodium.
At least that was the case back in 2003-2004, when the ads were surveyed, according to a study being published Tuesday (Sept. 4) in the journal, Pediatrics.
A nine-month survey of the nutritional content of food ads in 170 top-rated [according to Nielsen] TV shows with kids 2-17 concluded that 97.8% of those food ads viewed by young children (2-11) were for foods with poor nutritional content, and 89.4% of ads for teens (12-17).
The percentage of snack food ads for teens would likely be even higher if fast food ads had been included, says study author Lisa Powell. Fast food was excluded because it was too difficult to assign nutritional values to them, she says. Say an ad that said "go to McDonald's" might be for a Big Mac or a salad, though she said she doubted many teens would be going for salads.
But McDonalds and Burger King aren't off the hook. A separate fast food study is being planned.
"Clearly our kids are getting bombarded with poor nutritional messages every day," said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundaiton, which funded the study as part of a five-year, $500 million initiative fight childhood obesity.
"The advertising industry welcomes additional scientific guidance on responsible advertising to children," says Adonis Hoffman, senior VP of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.
"This study adds to the body of research on this important issue and should be viewed in the context of the recent Federal Trade Commission study which had notably different conclusions. Nevertheless, in light of history-making pledges by major food companies to significantly change their advertising to children and use the media as an educational tool, it is important that all stakeholders keep up the dialogue in an effort to eradicate childhood obesity. We should also encourage the scientific community to push for increased support for physical education programs in schools and universal nutritional standards."
Powell recognizes that food marketers have taken steps since 2003-2004 to cut some of the marketing fat, and applauds those efforts, but she is also looking to create a benchmark to measure their progress.
Powell says she and her colleagues now are working on a study of data from 2005-2006 that should be ready by mid-year, and will also put out a similar study of 2007 data, hopefully by the end of 2008.
The study comes as media companies are joining food marketers in taking steps to boost the nutritional value of food advertised to kids and reduce the number of cartoon characters pushing snacks and sweets .
They are motivated both by the growing childhood obesity health problem, and by legislators and regulators who share that concern and have threatened to regulate food ads if the industry does not do enough on its own.
The Federal Trade Commission, for example, has subpoenaed food marketing information from over 40 companies for a report to Congress, while a majority of FCC commissioners say they would step in to regulate food marketing if the industry efforts were not sufficient.
A government-industry task force is preparing this month to report to Congress on proposals for changes in food marketing practices that will help reduce childhood obesity and promote better diet and exercise.