Advertising food to children has long been an area of concern. Questions abound as to how much junk food should be advertised during children’s programming, what tactics can be used, if it is having a real impact on childhood obesity–not to mention how (and if) it should be regulated by law. Leading the charge for data collection in this area is the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Their F.A.C.T.S. (Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score) reports on cereal, fast food and sugary drinks are enough to make pediatricians shudder, but their latest report on overall food advertising on television to children demands action from mega-media companies and anyone with a vested interest in children’s health. I know you’re busy, so here are two key highlights:
In 2009, 86% of all food ads seen by children aged 2-11 promoted items high in saturated fat, sugar or sodium.
On the face of it, this is pretty bad, but it gets more disturbing when you consider that this is after voluntary self-regulation by some of the largest food companies in the world. The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) was started by the Better Business Bureau in 2006, and set standards for how food companies could advertise their products, placing the toughest restrictions on advertising to children under six years old. The group includes pledges from companies like ConAgra Foods, Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Mars,, General Mills and McDonald’s USA. However, there are loopholes. CFBAI pledges define “child-directed advertising” as advertising which occurs during programs where children make up 30% or more of the audience. Because of this, the CFBAI pledge covers less than half of all food advertisements to children. In fact, young people are seeing more food advertisements than they did in the nascent days of CFBAI: Children saw 5% more food and beverage ads in 2011 than they did in 2007, while the number of food and beverages ads jumped by 23% for teens in the same timeframe.
Nickelodeon aired the most food ads viewed by children in 2011.
That’s right. If your kids are watching hit shows like Spongebob Squarepants, iCarly or Victorious, they’re at the center of the food ad storm. And as this table shows, that storm is pretty significant:
Bear in mind as well that Nickelodeon is owned by Viacom, which also owns MTV and Comedy Central. Put it all together, and Viacom companies alone accounts for more than 40% of food and beverage ads seen by children aged 14 and younger, and 39% of food ads seen by teens aged 15-17.
What can you do about all of this? There’s no single silver bullet, but the most basic is to start by talking about these ads with your kids–why ads appear during certain programs, how the ad tries to grab attention. Monitor the amount of time they spend watching TV, and also snacking in front of the television.
It’s also important that we hold big media accountable when they act irresponsibly. You can email Viacom here, and file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau about CFBAI inadequacies. Spread the word by sharing information with people in your community, or get involved with projects like LAMPlatoon to create media talking back to big media directly. It’s like one of my favorite teachers told me: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.