How have food ads switched targets?

December 15, 2015

As manufacturers are criticized for advertising unhealthy foods to children, parents are becoming the new target-but at what cost?

As regulators crack down on the amount of advertising that can be directed toward children, parents are becoming the new target-nearly half of the television commercials in a recent study pitched non-nutritious children’s foods and drinks directly to parents with messages evoking the parent-child bond.

The study, published in the November issue of Pediatrics, calls for more research on the effects parent-directed marketing of children’s processed foods has on the nutritional choices parents are making for their children.

“We need to determine how these advertising messages might undermine the ability of parents to identify healthy foods for their children,” says lead author Jennifer Emond, PhD, research instructor in the department of epidemiology at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine.

Advertisers spend billions each year on advertising geared toward children, and the American Psychological Association (APA) estimates that children watch more than 40,000 commercials each year on television alone. Many of those commercials feature unhealthy foods and snacks, and several studies have found a strong association between increases in advertising for non-nutritious foods and rates of childhood obesity, says APA.

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In Emond’s study, 51 food or beverage products were advertised over the course of the study year-and half of those were advertised directly to parents, accounting for 42.4% of total airtime. Commercials directed at parents focused more on nutrition and a healthy, active lifestyle, while those directed at children emphasized taste and fun.

The products that had the most airtime were ready-to-eat cereals, sugar-sweetened beverages, and children’s yogurt, according to the study.

Television is the medium of choice when marketing to children-televised commercials accounted for 48% of all packaged-food marketing targeting children in 2009. The study found that children who watched more than 24 hours of traditional television in a week saw 12.8 food commercials daily as a result. Most of those commercials pitched foods of poor nutritional quality, according to the study, and the advertisements are designed to “increase children’s pestering for advertised items.”

Mounting evidence, however, suggests that exposure to food advertisements influence the food preferences of children, and manufacturers are being pressured to limit commercials directed at children, Emond says.

“As food manufacturers face increasing pressure to limit child-directed advertising for nutritionally poor foods, parents may become
an increasingly important target audience,” Emond says.

Emond references a 2009 Australian study that found that 24% of advertisements targeted parental emotions, playing on their concern for their child’s well-being or health. A similar study has not been conducted in the United States, Emond says.

In her study, Emond explored the content of advertisements for children’s food and beverages. Roughly half of the advertisements were targeted to parents.

Child-directed advertisements were likely to feature animation-where the main character was the food itself or a licensed character. The commercials also were more likely to feature a promotional item, website, or social media more than parent-directed commercials.

Parent-directed commercials were more likely to feature a parent and child interaction, feature a nutritional or health message, and show a parent reading a food label or engaging in an active lifestyle, according to the study.

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Overall, Emond says while child-directed advertisements focus on fun, humor, action, and adventure, parent-directed commercials focus more on nutrition and convenience.

The five channels that accounted for most (65.8%) of the child-directed commercials were Nickelodeon (21.3% of total airtime), NickToons (17.5%), Cartoon Network (12.5%), Disney XD (8.5%), and the HUB (6.0%). Peak hours for child-directed advertisements were between 2 pm and 8 pm on weekdays, and from 8 am to 11 am on weekends. Parent-directed commercials were more evenly distributed across all channels, but the top channels were HUB (4.6%), the Game Show Network (3.7%), WE (3.2%), Hallmark (3.1%), and Style (2.7%), and peak airtimes were less variable.

Ready-to-eat cereal was the most-promoted children’s product, followed by sweetened beverages and children’s yogurt. About 25% of total ready-to-eat cereal and yogurt, and 72.8% of sugar-sweetened beverages were targeted to parents over children, and 5 products-chocolate, chocolate milk, bottled water, condiments, and baked beans-were targeted only to parents.

Sugar-sweetened beverages were the second most highly promoted item, with 60.1% of sweetened fruit drink and 100% of chocolate milk commercials directed towards parents. The advertisements highlighted the nutritional and health benefits of the drinks, while similar commercials targeting children made no mention of nutrition or health, Emond says.

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“These findings are of concern, as parents often misinterpret the nutrition or health claims associated with children’s foods; many parents believe sugar-sweetened fruit drinks and chocolate milk are healthy choices for their children,” Emond says. “Thus,

it is critical to understand whether exposure to parent-directed advertisements for sugar-sweetened beverages may shape parental beliefs and attitudes about the appropriateness of such drinks for their children.”

Emond points out that the products advertised did not meet nutritional guidelines set by a federal working group tasked with improving the quality of foods advertised to children on television, and the study highlights the increasing frequency in which these products are advertised to parents instead of children to circumvent those guidelines.

“Targeting parents with an approach distinct from that used to target children is likely a useful strategy,” says Emond. “The use of nutrition and health appeals for children’s foods may divert attention away from poor nutritional quality.”

Television advertisements are only a fraction of the advertising people face each day. Although marketing to children is facing heavier scrutiny, Emond’s report highlights the need for more research into the effect of parent-directed marketing of children’s products has on buying practices-and therefore health implications-as a result of parental decision making.

“Further research is needed to determine whether such advertisements ultimately undermine the ability of parents to select healthy dietary options for their children,” Emond says. “As policymakers and researchers evaluate the effectiveness of such policies, the potential effect that parent-directed marketing for those foods may have on a child’s dietary intake and health should be considered.”

Emond notes that her study did not evaluate any commercials on adult networks-only those played during children’s programming. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Women in Science Program at Dartmouth College.