WASHINGTON Children are being force fed a diet of sugary foods advertisements on television as spots for candy, snacks and fast food are crowding healthy food off the commercial plate, according to a new study.
According to "Food for Thought: Television Food Advertising to Children in the United States," released by the Kaiser Family Foundation on Wednesday, children ages 8-12 see the most food ads on TV—an average of 21 a day, or 7,600 a year. Teenagers see slightly fewer—17 a day, or about 6,000 a year. Children ages 2-7 see the fewest—12 a day, or 4,400 a year.
"The vast majority of the foods that kids see advertised on television today are for products that nutritionists would tell us they need to be eating less of, not more of, if we're going to get a handle on childhood obesity," said Kaiser vp Vicki Rideout.
The advertisements were particularly pernicious for children between 8 and 12, the so-called "tweens."
"Children of all ages see thousands of food ads a year, but tweens see more than any other age group," Rideout said. "Since tweens are at an age where they're just becoming independent consumers, understanding what type of advertising they are exposed to is especially important."
Overall, the foundation's researchers monitored 13 television networks. The viewing took place primarily between late May and early September 2005. They saw 2,613 ads featuring food and drinks that targeted children and teens.
The study comes as policy makers are increasing pressure on broadcasters to do something to help shrink Americans' expanding waistlines. A task force of lawmakers, FCC commissioners, broadcasters and food and beverage industry executives conducted its first meeting last week.
In November, 10 major food and drink marketers, including companies such as McDonald's, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, agreed to adopt new voluntary rules for advertising. The companies said they would devote at least half their advertising directed to children to promote healthier diets and lifestyles.
While the rules have not gone into effect, researchers believe that the study released will serve as an important benchmark that will help determine whether the voluntary guidelines lead to any significant changes in advertising content.
Sen. Tom. Harkin, D-Iowa, said he hoped the study would also prove helpful to a new Federal Communications Commission task force examining the impact of the media on childhood obesity rates. Harkin and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., co-chair the task force.
"We now have data that conclusively shows kids are seeing an overwhelming number of ads for unhealthy food on all types of TV shows," Harkin said. "The 'childhood obesity epidemic' isn't just a catch phrase. It's a real public health crisis."
While the study documented the plethora of advertisements for junk food, it also pointed out the dearth of public-service announcements for healthy eating.
Children under 8 see one announcement on fitness or nutrition for every 26 food ads, the study found. For preteens, it's one announcement for every 48 food ads, and for teens the ratio is one public service announcement for every 130 food ads.