Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Targeting Kids with Junk Food Ads

It seems junk food ads designed especially for kids are everywhere lately, but it's hardly a new concept. I'm going to date myself, but I can still sing the the old commercial jingles for Lucky Charms, Jell-O, and Coca-Cola from the late 70s and early 80s. I grew up during a time when children's programming was largely relegated to Saturday mornings, so I didn't have the chance to watch hours of TV each week. The fact that I remember these commercials at all might be a testament to the effectiveness of advertising on kids.

Present-day research supports a strong connection between junk food ads and poor nutrition. With childhood obesity now reaching record levels, these results demand that we as a society pay attention - and take immediate action.  

Junk food makers pay big money to get exposure in front of kids and teens every day (the beverage industry alone spends $3 billion per year). From product placement in movies to free music downloads to traditional television advertising, the goal is to influence kids' eating habits from an early age. And it doesn't stop there. According to Common Sense Media, "[Junk food advertisers] even find their way into our schools by way of score boards, special events, fundraising, and textbook sponsorship." (By the way, did you hear about the flap over cash-strapped schools allowing advertisements on school buses?)

Some of the featured findings (taken directly from the Common Sense Media article):
  • There is a strong connection between ads and eating habits (UCLA, 2010)
  • Kids who watch more TV than their peers during middle and high school years have less healthy diets five years later (University of Minnesota, 2009).
  • Children ages 7 to 11 who watched a half-hour cartoon that included food commercials ate 45 percent more snack food while watching the show than children who watched the same cartoon with non-food commercials (Yale University, 2009).
  • In 2005, half of ads during Saturday morning cartoons were for snacks or restaurants, and more than 90% of those ads promoted unhealthy food (Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2008).
  • Tighter regulation since 2005 has led to a decrease in junk food ads overall, but ads for fast food restaurants have increased (Nielsen, 2010).
In addition to Common Sense Media, other big names like Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, The American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychological Association all provide tips for parents to help mitigate the effects of junk food ads and provide research findings that emphasize why this is important. Some of the tips include taking the television out of the kids' bedroom, having conversations about advertisements and health food choices, encouraging health and not appearances, and taking time to have dinner as a family.

The APA even says the home is "the most immediate environment in which to impact the child’s dietary habits and preferences" and it encourages parents to monitor TV time as one of the best defenses against unhealthy eating and obesity.

Want to take action outside the home? Consider joining Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood or another organization that helps individuals fight continued "ad creep" in our communities.

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