Television advertisements for children’s packaged foods and beverages frequently target parents by using themes of nutrition, health and an active lifestyle, according to a new report.
Roughly half of the advertisements studied were targeted directly to parents. Parent-directed advertisements more often featured health messaging and an active lifestyle, while child-directed advertisements more frequently highlighted fun and product taste.
Researchers analyzed advertisements for 51 children’s packaged food and beverage products that aired on U.S. network, cable and syndicated television between March 2012 and February 2013. The analysis was detailed in a study titled “Children’s Food and Beverage Promotion on Television to Parents” (Emond JA, et al. Pediatrics. Nov. 9, 2015, www.pediatrics.org/cgi/doi/10.1542/peds.2015-2853).
Jennifer A. Emond, Ph.D., M.Sc., co-author of the report, said manufacturers that are under pressure to avoid advertising unhealthy food to children may direct commercials for children’s products at parents instead. Targeting parents with an approach distinct from that used to target children may divert attention away from poor nutritional quality.
“Parents want to do the right thing,” Dr. Emond said. “You (parents) see things that are marketed as fruit-flavored, or healthy, or contain 35% less sugar than soda, and your first reaction might be that this is a good product and I’m doing a good thing for my child.”
The products with the most airtime were ready-to-eat cereals, sugar-sweetened beverages and children’s yogurt. The proportion of total airtime directed at parents was 72.8% for sugar-sweetened beverages, 25.8% for children’s yogurt and 24.4% for ready-to-eat cereals.
These products do not meet nutritional guidelines set by the Interagency Working Group, a federal group charged with improving the quality of foods marketed to children on television.
The authors noted several limitations to their research and areas for further investigation. The study did not include advertisements for restaurants or ads intended for adolescents. In addition, the analysis focused only on television marketing, yet newer media such as the Internet and social media are used more frequently to reach children and parents.
The findings are concerning if exposure to such advertisements shapes parents’ beliefs about the appropriateness of nutritionally questionable children’s foods and beverages, according to the authors.
“We need to look at how parents react to these ads — if they (ads) actually do change the perception of the products among parents, if they change parents’ minds and behavior,” Dr. Emond said.
When pediatricians advise parents on a healthy diet for children, they can warn them to be wary of advertising claims and to pay closer attention to product nutrition, Dr. Emond said.
“Just be very critical and look at the ingredients and look at the nutritional facts,” she said. “Don’t necessarily look at product packaging and advertising and believe manufacturers that these are healthy products.”