Junk food gets spotlight in many movies: study

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A majority of the top-grossing films in recent years have featured food and beverage product placements -- with junk food and fast-food restaurants grabbing most of the starring roles, a new study finds.

A man eats a 10 ounces hamburger at Cheeburger Cheeburger restaurant in Coral Spring, Florida July 28, 2008. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

What’s concerning, researchers say, is that brand placements were seen in a majority of PG and PG-13 films, which often target children and teenagers, and in one-third of G-rated movies.

Whether those product placements affect kids’ food preferences is the big question. And that will be a subject of future research, said Dr. Lisa A. Sutherland, of Dartmouth Medical School in Lebanon, New Hampshire, the lead researcher on the current study.

For now, she told Reuters Health in an interview, parents should be aware that movies can be a source of junk-food advertising of sorts.

“We may not even think of (product placement) as advertising,” Sutherland said. But advertisers have long paid for their products to be used in TV programs and movies, she and her colleagues point out. The power of food product placement became clear, they note, after the 1980s blockbuster movie “E.T.” boosted sales of Reese’s Pieces by 65 percent in the few months after its release.

The new study, however, is the first to look at the prevalence food and beverage brand placement in popular films, Sutherland said.

The findings, published in the journal Pediatrics, are based on an analysis of the top 20 box-office movies for each year between 1996 and 2005. Of those 200 movies, Sutherland’s team found, 69 percent included at least one brand placement for a food, beverage or food retailer.

That included one-third of G-rated movies, 58 percent of PG movies and

72 percent of those rated PG-13. And when it came to the type of product, the most heavily featured included candy and other sweets, salty snacks like chips and pretzels, and soft drinks.

Candy, sweets and salty snacks accounted for 59 percent of food brands, while sugar-sweetened drinks accounted for three-quarters of beverages. When restaurants or food stores were featured, it was a fast-food establishment 62 percent of the time.

Sutherland pointed out that genre mattered. Comedies and action/ adventure movies were most likely to feature any brand placement (at 30 percent of movies in each genre), and comedies generally had the highest number of placements per movie. By comparison, 4 percent of family-oriented animated movies had a food product placement.

Sutherland said she and her colleagues are now looking at whether there have been any changes in movies released since 2005. In 2006, the researchers point out, the Better Business Bureau started a program called the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.

As part of that voluntary program, 15 companies pledged to “not pay for or actively seek food and beverage product placement in editorial or entertainment content that is primarily directed to children under 12.”

“The question,” Sutherland said, “is, will we see there has been a decline in product placements, or will we see that movie studios are still including placements without (being paid)?”

For parents, she said, the message is that junk-food advertising “goes beyond TV” -- the medium that usually catches the blame for promoting nutritionally dubious foods to kids.

“If you’re concerned about these ads,” Sutherland noted, “you should be aware that popping in a bunch of movies may not be any better than letting your kids watch TV.”

SOURCE: Pediatrics, March 2010.