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Advertising and Child Obesity: Content Analysis of Food Commercial on Saturday Morning Television Report

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Updated: Oct 20th, 2021

Introduction

The US News and World Report have established a strong reputation as a public health advocate such that hospitals across the US consider it a distinction to be included in its annual list of the best American hospitals, the same way many Americwereans participate actively in the online Community Health Forum sponsored by the now bi-monthly newspaper. In a recent issue, the newspaper discussed the growing incidence of childhood obesity and blamed food advertising on children’s television, saying that over 90 percent of food products being advertised on children’s television are high in fat, sugar, or salt content. The notion that the advertising and food industries market unhealthy and fattening foods on children’s television is nothing new. In fact, it is believed that fast food advertising is generally intended for children. However, that this is being done with total disregard for the growing problem of childhood obesity is a new assumption. This report attempts to confirm or refute the harsh indictment of US News and World Report against the food industry. In the process, the content of the food products and beverages advertised on children’s television will be analyzed which, because of time constraints, will be limited to the Saturday morning children’s television of the three major networks – the ABC Kids and Disney cartoons on ABC, Nickelodeon cartoons on CBS, and Discovery Kids on NBC. The survey will be conducted for two consecutive Saturdays, from 7 to 10 in the morning, such that as we monitor the children’s programs on one network, the whole duration of the children’s programming on the two other networks will be recorded on tape for our later viewing.

Television Watching

Media is suspected to have contributed to the childhood obesity problem in the US and elsewhere for two reasons: it promoted a sedentary lifestyle in which people spend more time in front of the television set than in physical activity, while media advertising changed eating patterns in favor of the fried and fattening fast-food culture (Baker & Raney, 2004). There is no question that television is a potent tool for education and attitude formation. It influences the attitudes, behaviors, and values of viewers – intended or not – before children can walk, talk, read, or write, such that its influence on attitude formation may be more important than school, religion, parents, or books (Bredbenner, 2002). According to the American Paediatric Studies, TV watching increases the incidence of childhood obesity not only because of the sedentary habit it promotes but also because it pummels children with an estimated 40,000 commercials per year that promote the fast-food culture. Of these TV ads, 32 percent are for candies, 31 percent for cereals, and 9 percent for fast food products. The same conditions obtain in Australia, where 81 percent of food adverts on children’s television were for unhealthy, non-core foods (Morley, 2007). Foods and beverages account for 124 of all TV ads monitored on three national networks in Australia, of which 96.8 percent were for unhealthy foods and 57 percent of these were aimed specifically at children. The most advertised products were fast food items, soft drinks, sweets, and other calorie-rich food with poor nutritional value. There were very little fruit or vegetable commercials. Of the food commercials, 27.4 percent gave health-related information but do not support the dietary recommendation for healthy and balanced eating (Morley, 2007).

A survey of a group of American consumers by Rowe (2004) found that 72 percent obtain their information on food and nutrition from television, with magazines and newspapers accounting for only 58 percent and 33 percent, respectively, as sources of similar consumer information. The problem is there are few people in the media who can qualify as a reliable source of information on health and nutrition. In fact, the survey placed the preparedness of media men for healthcare issues at only 8 percent, whereas their perceived rating on education and state-government issues reached 28 percent and 23 percent, respectively (Rowe, 2004). Bredbenner (2002) studied top-rating primetime television programs for children aged 2-11 and found 397 health-related content, of which the most prevalent was food and nutrition. However, the health behaviors portrayed in these commercials were the negative and the non-recommended types (Caraher, et al., 2005).

Advertising

That television advertising has a direct influence on the eating preferences and habits of children has been confirmed in many studies. For example, an exhaustive study by Luce (2005) confirmed that television advertisements are a strong influence over fewchildren’s choice of food. Because of this influence, children “tend to overeat and to eat quickly without paying attention to what they are consuming (Luce, 2005).” In the UK, a government study found that a large number of TV advertisements put out by the foodservice industry targets children and promote processed food that is mostly high in fat, sugar, and salt. For this reason, there are moves around the world to regulate fast food, children’s, advertising, which is one of the few consumer products whose marketing remains unregulated. Consumption of alcohol, even milk products, is heavily regulated. It is believed that information and educational campaigns promoting a healthy diet and increasing levels of physical activity would be more effective in addressing childhood obesity. In this connection, the US Food Standards Agency has commissioned a more expansive research to determine exactly how media advertising influences children’s eating preferences and patterns. The objective is to develop a framework for the most effective means of engaging children and their families in the anti-obesity campaign and what sort of programs, advice, and support are necessary (Caraher, et al.,.2005). The consumer and health groups agitate for regulatory measures, and in the UK a group called Foodaware is calling for a ban, as a good start, on the advertising and marketing of fatty, sugary, and salty foods in places frequented by children, such as schools, websites and children’s television. To force the food industry into reducing the fat content of its products, a tax system called “fat tax” has been proposed on fatty foods. Moreover, a bill has passed the first reading at the House of Commons prohibiting food and drink advertisements during the TV watching period of pre-school children. Fast food advertising is targeted at children, there is a Children’s Food Bill in the UK that intends to regulate such advertisement. In Sweden, all advertising aimed at children under 12 years old is banned including fast food ads. In 2006, the US Food Standards Agency called for laws to prevent the advertising of such food before 9 p.m. as well as preventing firms to associate celebrities and popular film characters with fast food products.

However, the advertising and marketing sector flails against the regulation of fast food advertising, saying this measure is based on a wrong assumption. The advertising and marketing sector argues that advertising, far from influencing children to eat unhealthy food encourages them to choose one brand over another and that with or without a ban on junk food advertisements, children will want them anyway. In effect, they say that advertising is just one of many influencing factors. The advertising industry warns that further regulation would harm this sector of the economy. Instead, the industry is proposing a new code of practice that would penalize advertisers that discourage good dietary habits and encourage excessive consumption.

Survey

Our survey confirmed the content analysis of the US News and World Report. For example, the Pringles ad was aired as a 30-second spot during every 3-minute commercial break while we watched ABC Kids, the Nickelodeon cartoons on CBS and the Discovery Kids on NBC. The Pringles ad tagline “once you pop, the fun won’t stop” promotes the idea that gorging on salty potato chips is a never-ending fun. Apart from Pringles, three other snack foods with salt content in them were advertised on the children programs on CBS and NBC. The other ubiquitous advertisements on the 7 to 10 a.m. Saturday programs over all three networks were the latest offerings from Kentucky Fried Chicken, Greenwich, McDonald’s, Kenny Rogers, Domino Pizzas, Yellow Cab and a host of other fast food and pizzeria chain stores. The foods these fast food firms represent are all rich in fat. As for the food products high in sugar content, we saw commercials for four brands of candies, two for chocolates, and three for soft drink brands. There were only two commercials for food products that may be described as nutritious and less fattening, one for canned fruits and another for a fruit juice mix. We could have four if we count two soft brands advertised as “sugar-free” and “diet.” In sum, our content analysis of the food advertisements shown on the Saturday morning television programs of three major US networks on November __ and __ confirm that 90 percent of the food products advertised on children’s television are the ones saturated in salt, sugar, and fat.

Conclusion

For the above reasons, we conclude that food advertisements contribute to the unhealthy lifestyle of American children, leading to the increasing problem of childhood obesity. According to Bredbenner (2007), television plays a constant and major role in the daily lives of millions of American children such that it must be recognized as a major source of health information and influence on health practices. Since food advertising on children’s television has been identified as a major source of misguided information on health and nutrition, this must be the focus of regulatory efforts. If other harmful advertising is regulated, as is done for milk preparations and alcoholic beverages, this can be done on fast food advertising, too. It is believed that information and educational campaigns promoting a healthy diet and increasing levels of physical activity would be more effective in addressing childhood obesity. The Center can help the Food Standards Agency complement its planned research to determine exactly how media advertising influences children’s eating preferences and patterns. That way, we can develop a framework for the most effective means of engaging children and their families in the anti-obesity campaign and what sort of programs, advice, and support are necessary. Also, deserving support from the Center are measures planned by consumer groups to implement a ban on the advertising and marketing of fatty, sugary, and salty foods in places frequented by children, such as schools, websites, and children’s television. The so-called “fat tax” envisioned by a legislative bill in the UK is worthy of emulation because it just might discourage fast food advertising.

Recommendation

Fast food advertising is targeted at children, we recommend a move at the Center to draft a proposed bill similar to the Children’s Food Bill in the UK that intends to regulate such advertisement. In Sweden, all advertising aimed at children under 12 years old is already banned, including fast food ads. We must take the cudgels for the Food Standards Agency and help renew its call for laws to prevent the advertising of such food before 9 p.m. as well as preventing firms to associate celebrities and popular film characters with fast food products. We noted this marketing ploy in the food advertisements we saw in our survey.

The Center is also advised to support the action plan of the US Surgeon General on “Healthy People 2010,” which calls for a reduction in TV watching among children to help prevent and reverse obesity. Children’s improper use of media, according to the Surgeon General, is the primary reason for the high prevalence of childhood obesity in the US. The primary goal of the action plan is to increase the ratio of adolescents who watch television for 2 hours or less on a school day. In this connection, the Surgeon General is disseminating guidelines on healthy living, which advise parents to keep their children physically active by limiting their TV watching, computer games, and other forms of inactive play. In addition, we can launch a children-oriented nutrition education program to neutralize the ill effects of fast food advertising. Correct meal planning is recommended as a key element of this program.

References

  1. Baker, K. & Raney, A. (2004). “Toons, They’re Not A-changing: Sex-Role Stereotyping on Saturday Morning Animated Programs.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, New Orleans Sheraton, 2004.
  2. Bredbenner, C.B. (2007). “Saturday Morning Children’s Television Advertising: A Longitudinal Content Analysis.” Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal, Vol. 30, No. 3.
  3. Caraher, M., Landon, J. & Dalmeny, K. (2005). “Television Advertising and Children: Lessons from Policy Development.” Public Health Nutrition, Vol. 9, No. 5.
  4. Luce, D.D. (2005). “Fast Food and Children and Adolescents: Implications for Practitioners.” Clinical Paediatrics, Vol. 44, No. 5.
  5. Morley, B.C. (2007). “National Community Survey of TV Food Advertising to Children.” Center for Behavioral Research in Cancer, The Cancer Council Victoria.
  6. Rowe, S. (2004). “The Role of Media in Influencing Healthy Lifestyles.” Paper presented at the IFT Obesity Summit, LA, 2004.
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IvyPanda. "Advertising and Child Obesity: Content Analysis of Food Commercial on Saturday Morning Television." October 20, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/advertising-and-child-obesity-content-analysis-of-food-commercial-on-saturday-morning-television/.

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