National, state, and local research, policy and advocacy to improve the lives of kids

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Media & Health

Children are uniquely susceptible to the messages they get through the media. For example, children under the age of eight do not recognize the persuasive intent of ads and tend to accept them as accurate and unbiased. TV shows, advertising, video games, online content and other media all play a role in informing children’s opinions and shaping their health and well-being.

Advertising to Children topic areas

Our children are a primary target of advertising, with companies spending $15 billion a year on marketing to chil­dren under the age of 12, twice the amount they spent just 10 years ago. What tends to be overlooked, however, is that children are uniquely susceptible to advertising messages. For instance:

  • Children under the age of eight do not recognize the persuasive intent of ads and tend to accept them as accu­rate and unbiased.
  • A 30-second commercial can influence brand preferences in children as young as two years old.

As such, Children Now works to understand advertising’s impact on children’s health and ensure that children’s best interests are reflected in our nation’s advertising policies.

A Brief History of the Issue

The Institute of Medicine Confirms Advertising’s Role in Childhood Obesity

In 2004, Congress commissioned the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies of Sciences to evaluate the role of food marketing as a contributing factor to childhood obesity. The IOM report, released in 2006, reviewed all existing scientific studies and determined that food and beverage advertising targeted at children influences their product preferences, requests and diet. It concluded that “food and beverage marketing practices geared to children and youth are out of balance with healthful diets, and contribute to an environment that puts their health at risk.”

Given the severity of the childhood obesity epidemic, the IOM recommended that the food and beverage industry shift its marketing practices to children away from products high in added sugar, salt and fat, and toward healthy products that children can safely consume as part of their everyday diet. To underscore the importance of this goal, the IOM specified that if the industry proved unable to achieve such reform voluntarily, Congress should intervene with legislation.

The IOM’s conclusions confirmed the role of food and beverage marketing practices in the childhood obesity crisis, subsequently increasing attention to the issue among public health officials and children’s advocates. In response to this growing pressure for change, the food and beverage industry responded with a self-regulatory program aimed at reducing unhealthy food advertising to children. This program is known as the Children’s Food and Beverage Ad­vertising Initiative.

Bringing the Issue to Those Who Can Make A Difference

In 2006, Children Now hosted “The Future of Children’s Media: Advertising” at the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington, D.C. This conference brought together the nation’s leading children’s media executives, policymakers, academics, and advocates to discuss how new methods of advertising and marketing are being used to reach chil­dren today, what’s on the horizon, and potential steps we can take to better ensure children’s well-being in a rapidly evolving media environment, including potential policy and voluntary solutions.

One outcome of the conference was the establishment of the bipartisan Joint Task Force on Media and Childhood Obesity led by Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Tom Harkin (D-IA), Federal Communications Commission Chair­man Kevin Martin (R), and FCC Commissioners Deborah Tate (R) and Michael Copps (D). One of the goals of the task force was to explore the voluntary steps that the private sectors can take to combat childhood obesity.

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

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 for 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.

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

The advertising environment targeting children continues to expose them to nutritionally poor food products, con­tributing to the current childhood obesity epidemic. As such, it is time for our nation’s leaders to step forward and help ensure a healthy food advertising environment for our children.

Giving Children A Voice

On July 14, 2011, Children Now filed comments on behalf of several groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, to the Federal Trade Commission on the Interagency Working Group’s (IWG) proposed nutrition guidelines for food marketed to children. The debate surrounding these voluntary nutrition guidelines is not about jobs, yogurt, or wheat bread, as the food and bever­age industry would like it to be. It’s a life and death issue for America’s children. While Children Now views the proposed guidelines as a means to significantly reduce children’s and teen’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing by improving on current self-regulatory efforts, Children Now urges the IWG to ensure that the guidelines cover child and adolescent audiences, since both groups need protection for different reasons.

On September 23, 2008, two subcommittees of the United States Senate Committee on Appropriations held a hear­ing in Washington, D.C. to hear from experts on the role of media and advertising in the childhood obesity epidemic. Entitled, “Watch What You Eat: Food Marketing to Children,” Children Now testified on the need for media compa­nies to do more to improve the advertising environment for children.

Interactive Advertising to Children

Inadequate Regulation Exists Today

Interactive technologies and connected devices can enhance how children learn and grow. With a click, children now have access to limitless information and rich, online experiences. This powerful interactivity also opens the door for more intrusive forms of advertising to children and new privacy concerns. Significant questions remain unanswered about how children are targeted by marketers when they are connected and the effects of these new practices. As a result, policymaking to ensure children are adequately protected is lagging well behind the fast pace of new technol­ogy development.

Addressing the Gaps in Knowledge & Policy

Children Now is developing and distributing the knowledge base needed to create effective policies covering chil­dren’s best interests in the digital age. By bringing together federal lawmakers, industry leaders, and other experts in the field to discuss the open issues, the organization is creating awareness of the need for action among those who can make a difference. For example, Children Now’s national conference, “The Future of Children’s Media: Advertis­ing,” shed light on many new advertising and marketing methods used to reach children today, what’s on the horizon, and potential steps to better ensure children’s well-being in the rapidly evolving media environment.

Children Now Victory Limits Advertising to Children

On September 9, 2004 , by a unanimous vote, the Federal Communications Commission established new rules pro­tecting children from certain forms of advertising—including regulations on the use of licensed characters. Addition­ally, the ruling provides children with more educational television programming. The approved rules are federal regu­lations that must be adhered to by all digital TV broadcasters. This decision, which resulted from a six-year advocacy effort led by Children Now and the Children’s Media Policy Coalition, is one of the most critical victories for children in federal media policymaking.

Children Love their Favorite Characters

The Superpower of Spokescharacters 

There are a lot of children’s favorite characters on the packaging and advertising for cereals, fast foods, snacks, and other products. They’re known as licensed characters or “spokescharacters.” They’re a huge business because they have enormous swaying power over children’s preferences.

For example, in the following video, watch 4-year-olds choose a banana over a chocolate cupcake—because the ba­nana bears the image of their favorite cartoon characters.

Children Now Study: Use of Spokescharacters Feeds Childhood Obesity

A key finding of Children Now’s study, The Impact of Industry Self-Regulation on the Nutritional Quality of Foods Advertised on Television to Children, released on December 14, 2009, is that food marketers are increasingly using 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.

Children Now Victory Limits Use of Licensed Characters

On September 26, 2006, by a unanimous vote, the Federal Communications Commission established new rules protecting children from excessive advertising—including regulations on the use of licensed characters—and provid­ing children with more educational television programming. The approved rules are federal regulations that must be adhered to by all digital TV broadcasters. This decision, which resulted from a six-year advocacy effort led by Chil­dren Now and the Children’s Media Policy Coalition, is one of the most critical victories for children in federal media policymaking.