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Foods Advertised to Children on TV Remain Nutritionally Poor, Despite Industry Pledge

Dec 14, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C.—A new study by Children Now reveals the failure of the food and beverage industry’s “Better-for-You” initiative to achieve promised improvements in the nutritional quality of foods advertised to children. This landmark report raises serious doubt about the future viability of industry self-regulation to help address the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.

In 2007, major food companies such as Kellogg, General Mills, ConAgra and PepsiCo banded together and pledged to stop advertising unhealthy foods to children. Children Now’s report, The Impact of Industry Self-Regulation on the Nutritional Quality of Foods Advertised on Television to Children, holds the industry accountable to its promise.

Despite a major effort at self-regulation, nearly three out of four (72.5%) of the foods advertised on television to children are for products in the poorest nutritional category. Known as “Whoa” foods, these products should be consumed only on “special occasions, such as your birthday,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Advertising for truly healthy foods, such as vegetables and fruits, known as “Go” products, is virtually invisible. Commercials for such foods account for only 1% of all food advertising to children.

“We cannot win the battle against childhood obesity as long as we continue to allow the industry to bombard children with ads for foods that they really shouldn’t eat very often,” said Dr. Dale Kunkel of the University of Arizona, who conducted the study for Children Now. “Other countries have already put a stop to this type of commercial exploitation, and it’s time for the U.S. to act more responsibly to protect the health of the nation’s children.” 

Another key finding of the study is that food marketers increasingly use licensed characters to promote foods of the poorest nutritional quality to children. Nearly half of all food ads with popular children’s characters (49%), such as SpongeBob SquarePants, are for so-called “Whoa” products that pose the greatest risk for obesity.

“Using licensed characters to sell unhealthy foods to children is an unfair practice, and has to be stopped,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now.

A strong body of existing research, including a 2006 research review by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, concludes that children’s exposure to television advertising for non-nutritious food products is a significant risk factor contributing to childhood obesity. Amidst the resulting increase in public concern, the food and beverage industry pledged to voluntarily reduce the advertising of unhealthy foods to children through the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. Sixteen of the nation’s top food companies—Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola, Cadbury Adams, Campbell Soup, McDonald’s, ConAgra Foods, Dannon, General Mills, Burger King, Hershey, Mars, Post, PepsiCo, Nestle and Unilever—participate in the initiative.

The study, funded by The California Endowment, provides the first inde¬pendent, comprehensive evaluation of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative and its impact on the children’s food marketing environment on television. 

“We have given the industry time and opportunity to address this issue,” said Jeff McIntyre, director of national policy for Children Now. “Unfortunately, the research indicates that their pledges have failed our children. We cannot afford to wait, since advertising has been identified as a key factor contributing to childhood obesity. We need strong regulation to address this quickly and aggressively.”

The study is being released today at a conference at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Tomorrow, this research will also be presented at a Federal Trade Commission hearing on the issue of advertising to children and childhood obesity.

“Reversing the dramatic increase in childhood obesity requires an ‘all hands on deck’ approach across all sectors, including the food and beverage industry,” said Robert K. Ross, M.D., president and chief executive officer of The California Endowment. “This and other research have made the case clear: we must act now and spare our children from a lifetime of poor health, chronic disease and high medical costs.”

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