Mark Dolliver’s Takes: Balanced Diet

Amid an epidemic of childhood obesity, television advertising for foods comes in for a lot of hostile scrutiny. It’s almost as if kids are thought to ingest calories straight from the TV screen, unmediated by any action on their parents’ part. A large study by the Kaiser Family Foundation takes a more serious look at the amount and types of food advertising young kids and teens consume.

Food eclipses all other sectors in the amount of commercials to which kids are exposed. (In the report, “food” included beverages as well as solids.) Foods account for 32 percent of TV advertising seen by 2-7-year-olds, 25 percent of that seen by 8-12s and 22 percent of that seen by 13-17s. On a typical day, the 2-7-year-olds are exposed to 4:51 minutes of food commercials. (Times here are shown as minutes:seconds.) Kids 8-12 see 8:21 minutes and those 13-17 see 6:43 minutes of food commercials. Alas, the spots are not likely to be for tofu and blanched vegetables. Because of the amount and types of programming they watch, 8-12-year-olds get the biggest daily dose of advertising for foods of dubious nutritional merit: 1:45 minutes for candy and snacks, 1:30 for fast foods, 1:20 for cereals and :43 for sodas. The 13-17s are exposed to more commercial time for sodas (53 seconds) and nearly as much for fast foods (1:27), but less for snacks/candy (1:09) and cereals (:33). Though they tend to get a bigger share of their viewing from non-commercial stations than older kids do, even the 2-7-year-olds see a daily 1:14 minutes of commercials for candy/snacks, 1:10 for cereals and :41 for fast foods. Among commercials the report classified as “targeting children and teens,” 34 percent were for candy/snacks, 29 percent for cereals and 10 percent for fast food. Just 4 percent were for dairy goods, 2 percent for breads and pastries and 1 percent for fruit juices.

The study also looked at the means by which food commercials make their appeal to youngsters. Of the spots that target kids and teenagers, 34 percent focused on “taste” as their primary appeal. Other persuasive elements scoring in double digits as primary appeal were “fun” (18 percent), “premiums or contests” (16 percent) and “the fact that a product is unique or new” (10 percent). One percent made “health” their primary point of appeal. The report lamented the finding that just 15 percent of all food commercials aimed at kids and teens showed people being physically active. One sees its point. Yet, it’s easy to imagine the food industry’s detractors complaining that commercials for fattening, sugary foods are being deceptive if they show their customers being vigorously active.

Among other info-morsels from the study: Among food commercials targeting kids and teens, 20 percent direct viewers to a Web site for the brand; 11 percent feature a children’s-TV or movie character; 22 percent include a disclaimed, such as “part of a balanced diet.”