According to research conducted by Nickelodeon in 2013, the average American child under nine watches 35 hours of television weekly, or the equivalent of a full workweek in France. With all that screen time, children are exposed to a plethora of advertisements for anything from toys to toothpaste. A whopping half of all of those advertisements are food-related. According to researchers at the University of Minnesota, children under eight see 12 food advertisements per day, or 4,380 ads each year.
Just as public health advocates demanded tobacco companies cease using cartoons in the advertisement of cigarettes in the late 1990s, many are concerned about the impact child-directed food advertisements have on children’s health. The obesity epidemic has been attributed to both the shift towards a sedentary lifestyle, including more TV time, and increased consumption of fast and processed foods. In 2006, Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative urged food manufacturers to only advertise healthy products to kids and cease all advertisement to those under six. Unfortunately, there has been little improvement in the near decade since the Council of Better Business Bureaus started the effort.
A new study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that child-directed fast food advertisements influenced families to visit those restaurants more frequently. The study, which was conducted by researchers at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth University, looked at fast food television ads from 2009. Using a database, they compiled all of the advertisements that aired nationally that year, and found that two nationally recognized fast food chains, Burger King and McDonalds, engaged in child-directed advertisements. Seventy-nine percent of ads from those chains aired on just four children’s networks.
The researchers surveyed 100 children between the ages of three and seven and one of their parents. They asked parents whether their children watched each of the four children’s networks, if their children requested to visit either of the two chains, if their children collected toys from those chains, and how often the family visited those restaurants. According to their findings, 54 percent of all children requested visits to at least one of the chains and 29 percent of the children collected toys. Of those children that collected toys, 83 percent requested visits to at least one or both of the restaurants. Finally, 37 percent of parents reported more frequent visits to the two fast food chains as a result of child-directed ads.
Despite the small size of the sample, this study demonstrates that child-directed fast food ads, especially those involving toys, influence families to visit the fast food chains featured. Additionally, it suggests that children’s food preferences may be shaped simply by a desire for the toy. Though the food industry has taken few steps to address this issue, parents can do their part to protect their children’s health. “For now,” the lead author of the study, Dr. Jennifer Emond, said, “our best advice to parents is to switch their child to commercial-free TV programming to help avoid pestering for foods seen in commercials.”
The accompanying slideshow is provided by fellow Daily Meal editorial staff Dan Myers.