Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Food marketing to children: How big a problem is it?

Food marketing is a more than one billion dollar a year industry. The comparison often made is that the marketing budget of food companies alone far and away exceeds the entire budgets of organizations like the World Health Organization to address the negative health ramifications associated with chronically consuming the types of foods most often marketed on TV, on the radio, or (and increasingly) on the Internet.

One of the biggest public health battles currently being waged is the marketing of unhealthy food products to children and adolescents. The argument is such advertising is coercive, as children this young are not cognitively able to understand or deconstruct the advertisements they see. Many of the world's largest and most powerful food and beverage companies, like Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kraft and others, have recently made voluntary pledges to market their products more responsibly to children under the age of 12. And they report some progress, but the fact is, marketing of unhealthy foods, loaded with sugar, refined carbohydates, and unhealthy fats, is still a major issue and is playing a huge role in the exploding obesity and diabetes epidemics, particularly among children and adolescents.

Recently the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University published a report of findings from a recent survey of almost 2,500 parents about food marketing practices to children and adolescents. Parents of children ages 2-17 who were living at home in June-July of 2009, 2010, and 2011 were asked questions about where their children see food and beverage advertising, what types of products they see most often, and how often they see them.

Though the findings reveal some fascinating insights into the concerns of parents, one word of caution when interpreting the results below. The study used a non-probability based panel, which means the findings can't be generalized to the entire U.S. population. In addition, the results were not weighted to adjust for any possible oversampling of key demographic groups, such as females, or Hispanics, or Caucasians.

Here are some of the study's main findings...


1. TV is by far the most common food and beverage marketing vehicle, but the Internet, radio and in-store advertising where the next three most common. From 2009 to 2011, Internet overtook Radio as the top place where children see/hear food marketing after TV, according to respondents. With the constant changing role of the Internet, the growing use of social media, and the increasing hours adolescents spend 'connected,' the Internet will undoubtedly be a major marketing channel in the years to come. More on this below.

2. Fast food, cereal, and soda/pop are the top three food and beverage categories children see advertised most often (at least once per day). A worrying trends seen in all categories is the slightly higher percentage for non-white respondents - essentially providing support that minorities (as well as low-income and less-educated) are often the targets of food and beverage marketing. The percent of African American parents whose children saw ads at least once a day was significantly higher than both Hispanics and Caucasian parents for ALL food categories.

 3. The cost of healthy foods was perceived as the biggest obstacle to ensuring healthy eating habits in children - fast food restaurants, prevalence of junk food, and too much TV/computer were the second, third, and fourth biggest obstacles. Though cost is undoubtedly a major consideration, particularly for low-income families, the argument that health food "costs too much" is often made by only thinking of food in terms of calories, rather than nutrient content. I wrote more about the limitations of this approach in this posting.

4. Parents of all races view the media as the most negative influence on healthy eating for their children, followed closely by the food industry and government. Media and the food industry are obvious villains here, but to see more than half of parents view the government as a negative influence is quite interesting, particularly as the government holds the regulatory and legislative power to control food marketing. More interesting is the significant difference between white and minority (both African American and Hispanic) parents and their negative views of government (white parents rated government roughly 10 percent more negative than minority parents).

5. Schools held the least negative views among parents, and were seen as the best place to intervene to promote healthy eating habits among their children, particularly through nutrition standards for school lunches and other available foods (like vending machines).

6. Regulation of a wide range of communication channels is strongly supported, with the most support for stricter controls on TV commercials. The largest support by parents (and the largest increase between 2010 and 2011) is for regulations to limit TV commercials marketing unhealthy foods to children under 12. Interesting, more than 50% of all parents in the survey supported regulation to limit unhealthy food marketing through all communication channels list in the survey. The overwhelming support of parents for government regulatory intervention is, I think, a strong indicator of just how big an issue this has become.


Some Final Thoughts

Food marketing to children and adolescents is a huge issue. There is a lot at stake - like many other products, brand loyalty is important. A 10 year old who develops a taste for Pepsi, might just stick with having a 20 oz bottle with lunch everyday for the next 60 years -- that's $27,375 over the course of a lifetime. Not a bad profit...and that's just one person. Now imagine what this picture looks like not just across the US, but increasingly in countries like India and China, where there are huge cohorts of youth, an attraction to "Western" brands, often a favorable business environment, and the potential for huge profits. 

My second thought is on the Internet. Children born in the 21st Century are growing up, quite literally, attached to technology. It's no longer just watching TV, but kids are spending more time on computers, tablets and smartphones. And these are children under 5 years old! Technology hold tremendous potential, and enormous power. However, we haven't even scratched the surface on the range of developmental effects that technology have on children. One major variable in this is not just the technology itself, but the information children consume by using the technology, such as advertisements about cereals, or soda, or fast food. This is going to be one of the next major battlegrounds, and parents are already very concerned.

Lastly, it seems regulation will need to play a key role in all this, and there is almost unanimous consensus on it (even from industry). But at the same time, food and beverage companies are spending more and more on marketing, and spending for health and nutrition education keeps declining. There has even been considerable research, including this recent study, showing medical schools fall short on teaching students about obesity and nutrition. I wonder how effective food advertisements would be if understanding about basic food and nutrition concepts was just a little higher. 

It's an over-used saying, but knowledge in this case really is power. The knowledge scale about nutrition is grossly in favor of food and beverage companies. What can we do to tip the scales back?

Let me know your thoughts. 

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