Report: Industry limited unhealthy food ads targeting kids, but more progress is needed
Researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut found that food and beverage companies voluntarily shifted the mix of food and beverages advertised to young children on TV and online in order to encourage healthier choices. But their report also noted much more needs to happen to make sure that healthier products are being made and marketed to kids.
"[L]imitations in self-regulatory pledges allow companies to continue to advertise unhealthy products to children," Jennifer Harris, the center's director of marketing initiatives and lead author of the study, said in a written statement. "Furthermore, increased advertising by companies that do not participate in [the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, or CFBAI] has offset much of the reduction in advertising by CFBAI companies, and children continue to view thousands of TV ads per year for unhealthy food and drinks, including ads for candy, snacks, sugary drinks, and fast food that target them directly."
The researchers were following up on a voluntary industry initiative launched in 2007. Results were released Monday and were scheduled to be presented the same day in Atlanta at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association. Their work was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Although this study found that some companies have cut back on targeting children with advertising for less-healthy foods, it pointed out that children still see 10 to 11 food-related TV ads each day that promote fast food, candy, snacks and sugary drinks.
Public health experts want participants in the self-policing advertising initiative to take the next steps: beef up nutrition standards for healthier choices that can be marketed to children, include children up to age 14, and add other types of media — such as mobile apps and online videos — to the programming mix. So far, these requests haven't gotten through, according to researchers.
Mars and General Mills have adopted guidelines for which products they will advertise to young children and through which channels. Both of those food giants are CFBAI participants, according to a list posted in July, along with 16 other major food and beverage companies.
Not only are billions spent on advertising foods and beverages to children — whose input has a huge influence on family shopping decisions — but the profits to be realized are enormous. It's hard to turn such a lucrative machine around and head in a healthier direction without intense consumer pressure and much financial investment.
With enough political will and creativity, it's possible. Some groups are trying to use the same advertising tactics that get children to want sugary cereals or candy bars to promote fruits and vegetables. Cartoon characters and celebrities can be used on healthier products just as easily as on less-healthy ones.
Manufacturers have been making changes to ingredients to align products with the better-for-you foods movement. Some have reduced sugar and removed artificial ingredients and colors. While parents may respond favorably to these changes, children's reactions may vary wildly. They may not pay attention or care. But they may be put off by changes made to their favorite products, which could change the product's flavor, texture, or appearance. This could have consequences. Despite the efforts that General Mills put into reformulating its Trix cereal with natural flavors and colors, negative consumer sentiment led the manufacturer to bring back the less clean-label variety.
If more food and beverage makers would voluntarily cut back on advertising their less-healthy products to children and continue developing better-for-you items they can then creatively market on TV and online, parents and kids can more easily pivot into healthier eating habits, and industry sales may increase. It's a potential win-win scenario and well worth a shot for the sake of long-term public health.