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Screening Off T.V. Junk Food Ads



There’s good news and there’s bad news.
The good news first: Kids are seeing fewer television advertisements from food and beverage companies. The bad news? Most of the ads they do see promote fast-food restaurants and foods that are high in saturated fat, sugar or sodium. 
And more bad news: Self-regulation by the food industry isn’t working. In fact, the industry is even finding sneaky ways to promote their products.
A new study published this week in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine shows that self-regulation pledges by major food and beverage companies has had limited impact, particularly on the types of products companies continue to advertise.
A whopping 88 percent of ads by companies that pledged to limit marketing of unhealthy foods to kids were in fact pushing unhealthy products. Guess what? The companies that didn’t volunteer to limit unhealthy ads aimed at kids — as part of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) — did better. Eighty-six percent of their ads plugged unhealthy items. 
The report comes at a time when the federal government is considering implementing proposed principles for marketing to kids, while 17 big name companies put forth their own guidelines. The study calls for formal government intervention to strengthen the guidelines if continued monitoring shows further minimal improvements.
“I expect that the landscape is going to improve,” says lead researcher Lisa Powell, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The question is, by how much? And is it enough?”
The study looked at television advertisements between 2003 and 2009, finding children’s exposure to food and beverage ads (excluding fast-food restaurant ads) decreased by 33 percent for ages 2-5 and 22 percent for ages 6-11. Ads promoting regular soft drinks showed the largest improvement—dropping 68 percent for both age groups.
But children are more exposed to advertisements for fast-food restaurants, which also were the most frequently seen type of ad for kids, up 31 percent for ages 6-11 and 21 percent for ages 2-5. And while only two fast-food restaurants (McDonald’s and Burger King) were participating in the CFBAI during the study period, they accounted for almost half of the total fast-food ads seen by children.
Powell attributes the increase to fast-food restaurants competing for life-long customers. “They understand that children develop preference and brand loyalty when they’re young,” Powell tells The Inside Track.
Although Powell praises soda companies for reducing the number of ads they show on children’s programming, she notes that companies have found sneaky ways to get around their pledge. 
Most companies who have taken the pledge agreed not to advertise during programs that feature an audience made up of a certain percentage of kids, usually around 35 percent. For example, many companies don’t advertise for soda or candy during Dora the Explorer, since the majority of the audience is clearly children.
But companies do advertise for those products during programs such as American Idol, a show in which kids make up a small percentage of the overall audience but children are watching in huge numbers. “The ad will still reach numerous children, and that’s one of the problems,” Powell says.
Powell isn’t alone in her assessment. The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity released a study on Tuesday showing that companies that pledged to not market their products directly to children are heavily turning to product placement to market their goods to kids. Published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the study also cites Idol as a popular kid-reaching show among advertisers.
Coca-Cola products were seen 198 times by the average child and 269 times by adolescents in 2008, for example. American Idol accounted for 95 percent of those exposures, the study found. (Coke products always sit on the table in front of the judges, after all.)
Powell suggests that the problem might be solved, or at least minimized, by having guidelines that restrict advertisers not just for specific shows themselves, but for full time blocks. For example, certain products wouldn’t be aired from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., when kids are most likely to turn on the TV. 
Or, lower the audience threshold from 35 percent children to 20 percent. “That would cut out a lot of programming,” Powell says. 
Mark Bittman, who writes about the food industry for The New York Times, echoed those thoughts in an opinion piece this week, writing that "self regulation may be immediate, non-threatening and magical, but it doesn't work."
Citing Powell's report, Bittman argues that "real regulation" is needed, driven by "grass roots movements that drive agencies toward real regulation."