WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. children are being deluged by a tidal wave of TV ads for foods like candy, snacks, sugary cereals and fatty fast food, according to a study that exhaustively tallied the number and type of ads kids see.
The release of the report on Wednesday by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, which studies health-related issues, comes at a time of growing obesity among U.S. children that some experts attribute in part to incessant marketing of so-called junk food.
The study tracked shows watched by children ages 2 to 17 on 13 broadcast and cable television networks in 2005, analyzing the advertisement quantity and content. Children saw many thousands of food ads a year, most touting unhealthful products, it found.
Children ages 8 to 12 viewed the most food ads — on average, 21 daily and more than 7,600 a year totaling nearly 51 hours. Those ages 13 to 17 viewed 17 food ads daily and more than 6,000 a year totaling nearly 41 hours.
Children ages 2 to 7 saw 12 food ads daily and 4,400 a year totaling almost 30 hours. These younger children watched less TV overall and were more likely to watch channels with limited or no advertising like PBS and Disney.
Half of all ad time on children’s shows was for food products — a higher proportion than for any type of show. About 80 percent of these were for candy, snack foods like chips, sugary cereals, fast food, sodas and other soft drinks.
The findings were based on a sample of 1,638 hours of TV programing that included 8,854 food ads. Some shows were specifically made for children and others not. Of all the ads, none touted fruits or vegetables.
“The first thing that this study makes clear is that kids of all ages in this country are exposed to what I think we’d all agree is a large amount of food advertising on television,” said Vicky Rideout, who studies the influence of the entertainment media on health for the foundation.
“Second, it’s pretty clear that most of the food ads that kids see on TV today are for foods that nutritionists would argue children probably need to be eating less of, not more of, if we’ve going to get serious about tackling childhood obesity in this country.”
Daniel Jaffe of the Association of National Advertisers said the study may accurately depict the advertising situation in 2005, but not the current one, noting that many food advertisers now offer more products lower in calories and fat.
Jaffe said that 11 companies accounting for about two-thirds of food advertising to children have pledged to devote at least half of these ads to promote healthier lifestyles or good nutrition.
Mary Sophos of the Grocery Manufacturers/Food Products Association trade group said food companies increasingly are introducing new and reformulated products with more whole grains and fiber and less calories, fat, salt and sugar.
But Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback said industry needs to get more serious about anti-obesity steps or face the possibility of stronger government regulatory action.
Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has spotlighted nutritional shortcomings of many popular foods, said industry self-regulation is not working.
Wootan said these food ads can undercut efforts parents may make to get children to want healthful foods.
“The problem is that food marketing almost makes us parents out to be liars — that the kind of diet that we encourage our children to eat is light years away from the kind of diet that food marketers market as desirable to eat,” Wootan said.