Childhood obesity is a major and growing concern in the United States, with some 17.6 per cent of 12 to 19 year olds considered obese, 17 per cent of 6 to 11 year olds, and 12.4 per cent of 2 to 5 year olds in 2007.
Poor eating habits, with diets that are heavy in fat and sugar, as well as sedentary lifestyles, are understood to be a major cause of this trend. The TV Bureau of Advertising estimated that children and teens watched around 3 hours 20 minutes of television per day – and this meant they were likely to be exposed to, and potentially influenced by, food company campaigns.
The study, which is published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, draw on data from Nielsen Media Group on national television ratings in 2003, 2005 and 2007.
The researchers found that exposure to adverts for confectionery fell over the period studies, by 41 per cent for 2 to 5 year olds, 29.3 per cent for 6 to 11 year olds, and 12.1 per cent for 12 to 19 year olds.
Adverts for soft drinks were down between 27 and 30 per cent across all age groups, with the biggest reductions for sugar-sweetened soft drinks.
However exposure to adverts for fast foods was seen to increase, by 4.7 per cent, 12.2 per cent, and 20.4 per cent.
Moreover, children in African American families were seen to have a higher exposure to food ads than children in white families.
Since the latest data was collected for this study the self-regulatory Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) was set up in 2008 under the auspices of the Council of Better Business Bureaus to encourage firms to curb the marketing of high fat, high salt and high sugar products to children.
Vice president of the CFBAI Elaine Kolish told FoodNavigator-USA.com that, in her view, self-regulation is working.
“The landscape of children’s food ads has very noticeably changed. Dozens and dozens of products have been reformulated or developed with better nutrition profiles.”
However in December 2009 the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) published a survey on improvements to food companies’ child marketing practices this year. It found that almost 80 percent of food ads on kids’ network Nickelodeon are for unhealthy food products.
Whilst this is a reduction from the 90 percent seen in 2005, the CSPI said the improvement is “modest and not quite statistically significant”, and said self-regulation is “not shielding children from junk food advertising”.