Did you know $1.8 billion dollars is spent on marketing foods to school-aged youth? Or that the average child sees 12-16 advertisements per day promoting food products high in saturated fat, sugar, or sodium?
These statistics have created public scrutiny on the food advertised to children. In 2006, the Better Business Bureau formed the Children’s Food & Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), made of leading food companies in the U.S. and designed to address the poor nutritional content of food advertisements. As a result, The current $1.8 billion dollars spent on child food advertising is actually a decrease from the $2.1 billion dollars previously spent in 2006.
Yet, the overall landscape of food commercials has shown little improvement since the CFBAI’s inception. Even in 2013, over 84% of all food commercials seen by children and 95% of ads aired specifically during children’s programming featured products high in saturated fat, trans fat, sugar, and sodium. These outcomes led researchers to call for increased scrutiny over CFBAI members’ efforts to market healthier products. In December 2014, the CFBAI responded by creating “Uniform Nutrition Criteria” for child food advertising: the results of this still remain to be seen.
In the meantime, we are left knowing the majority of the food commercials U.S. children watch are for unhealthy foods. But does this really matter? Do food advertisements influence our children? The answer to this is ‘yes.’ Research has shown food advertisements directly influence children’s food preferences, nutrition knowledge, purchase behaviors (through parents), food consumption habits, and nutrition-related health. In other words, the food advertisements our children see influence their daily food choices.
Why does this matter to families? In order to promote healthy diets in youth, we must be able to help them overcome this constant marketing of unhealthy foods. One means to help address these unhealthy messages is to work as a family to promote our own healthy messages & themes about food.
Analyses of children’s food commercials have shown that their most common themes include the offer of premiums (toys or discounts), promotional characters (stars, TV characters, and company characters), health-claims, taste, and fun. All of these themes work well to gather children’s interest and to make their products familiar.
Obviously families can’t create their own advertisements on food. But families can harness the themes consistently used across food commercials to promote trying healthy food in their homes.
Consider the discussions you have with your children on consuming vegetables, fruits, or whole grains: How often do you describe the fruits and vegetables as ‘tasty’? Make them fun? Or associate them with a popular character?
If your experiences are like mine, these themes are rarely used to promote healthy food consumption. But why not? Fruits are tasty. Dunking vegetables in dips can be fun, and encouraging your toddler to consider what “Captain America” eats can always be used to make foods memorable. The most important step families can take is to talk with kids about healthy foods in a positive, fun light.
Our children are living in a world where they are constantly exposed to product messages—the majority being unhealthy. This is slowly changing. We can help encourage this change and make healthy food messaging more common by using the companies’ proven themes to encourage youth to desire and choose healthy foods when at home.
Reviewed by Michelle Treber, OSU Extension Educator, Family & Consumer Sciences
Powell, L. M., Harris, J. L., & Fox, T. (2013). Food marketing expenditures aimed at youth: putting the numbers in context. American journal of preventive medicine, 45(4), 453-461.
Children’s Food & Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) (December 2014). A report on compliance and progress during 2013. Council of Better Business Bureau.
Powell, L. M., Schermbeck, R. M., & Chaloupka, F. J. (2013). Nutritional content of food and beverage products in television advertisements seen on children’s programming. Childhood Obesity, 9(6), 524-531.
Cairns, G., Angus, K., Hastings, G., & Caraher, M. (2013). Systematic reviews of the evidence on the nature, extent and effects of food marketing to children. A retrospective summary. Appetite, 62, 209-215.
Jenkin, G., Madhvani, N., Signal, L., & Bowers, S. (2014). A systematic review of persuasive marketing techniques to promote food to children on television. Obesity reviews, 15(4), 281-293.