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Child-Focused Food Marketing Policies Still Need Work


A new study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows that food and beverage companies are meeting their pledges about advertising healthier products to children. But unfortunately, as of 2013, the majority of advertised products don’t align with recommendations on what makes up a healthy diet for children. Because of this, researchers suggest that these pledges alone aren’t enough to shift the needle on unhealthy food advertising.

Back in January, the Inside Track covered the release of recommendations around food marketing to children from Healthy Eating Research and RWJF. Based on those recommendations, more than 4,700 Leaders and Supporters wrote to the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) to ask them to encourage their members to adopt the new recommendations around food marketing to children.

CFBAI is a self-regulation program that includes 17 major food and drink companies like Nestle, PepsiCo and Campbell Soup Company. According to their website, the goal of this initiative is to “shift the mix of advertising primarily directed to children to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles.”

Now, researchers from the University of Arizona and the University of Pennsylvania have analyzed commercials appearing in both 2007 and 2013 during children’s television programming on seven channels (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, CW, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon). Overall, the sample represented 128.5 hours of content.

They found that even with the CFBAI member companies meeting their own pledges for advertising healthier foods, the majority of all food ads are still for unhealthy products. This is partly because non-CFBAI members, who were responsible for nearly one-third of food advertising directed at children, are far more likely to release ads for unhealthy foods.

And while the foods that CFBAI companies advertised in 2013 are technically healthier than other non-member ads, 75.3 percent were for products that do not make the cut for what is considered nutritious by Department of Health and Human Services standards. This is only a small decrease from the number of similar ads aired in 2007 (76.4 percent), prior to any industry self-regulation

Additionally, researchers found that although the Institute of Medicine has recommended that the use of licensed characters – a powerful advertising tactic for children – should only be used for promoting healthy foods, the majority of food ads using these icons still promote “nutritionally deficient products.”

“CFBAI members followed their pledges in 2013, but those efforts have barely moved the needle in terms of shifting food advertising to children to genuinely healthy products,” said Dale Kunkel, professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and lead study author. “The CFBAI companies’ standards for what foods are considered healthy are not very high, and almost a third of the ads we measured came from companies that are not CFBAI members, limiting the impact of the program.”

The study did find, however, that the number of food ads during children’s TV programming dropped by about 2 per hour, and the amount of time dedicated to food advertising dropped by roughly one minute per hour. Even still, commercials advertising food during children’s programming in 2013 accounted for 24.5 percent of total ads.  Other studies document that children see over 5,000 food commercial annually.

“Despite industry claims that only healthy foods are advertised to children, most TV commercials feature products that are poor choices to consume on a regular basis,” said Dale. “These products contribute to obesity when consumed in abundance. Industry self-regulation is not helping to solve the problem.”

To read the full study, please click here.

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