Sweets and Grease: The Plague of Children’s Television Food Advertising
“Froot Loops are so deliciously fruity, your colorful side will come alive!” shouts Toucan
Sam as he swoops into the patio to DJ for five animated hipster kids, who are hula hooping their
choice of breakfast cereal. “Hey Toucan, give it a spin,” a girl says. “Bring it!” he replies as he
spins the Froot Loops up in the air. “Whoa, just winging it, here, ha. Do whatever makes you
happy! Whatever Froots your Loops! Part of this complete breakfast” (Froot Loops).
The trendy youngsters in this commercial possess stick-thin bodies, which does not
represent how many children today actually appear. Through no fault of their own, many kids’
pudgy rolls of fat would bounce up and down if they were to hula hoop. When they run, they
plod with heavy feet before finally stopping, bent over, to gasp for breath. Researchers today tell
us that childhood overweightness and obesity present a major problem; in fact, 33% of all U.S.
children are overweight, and 17% are considered obese (Berk 198).
Multiple factors contribute to the higher rate of childhood obesity today as opposed to
years past, including parents’ weight, fewer meals eaten at home, more television watching, and
a more sedentary lifestyle (Committee on Food Marketing 2-3). While these are all important
influences, the purpose of this paper is to discuss an often-overlooked and underestimated
element of our children’s television time: food advertising. As it turns out, one of the major
influences behind childhood obesity is not television time per se. Rather, television
advertisements themselves play a major role in the poor eating habits and high obesity rates of
U.S. children. Understanding food advertising’s mechanisms and particular effects can enable
parents and teachers to better identify how to mitigate its damages in children.
The Flood of Advertising
It’s no secret that kids today watch hours upon hours of TV, and these hours upon hours
directly translate into greater amounts of food advertisement exposure. The Henry J. Kaiser
Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness for public health
issues, examined the amounts and types of advertisements kids see while their eyes are glued to
the screen. It found that children ages 2-7 are exposed to about 4,400 food ads per year,
accounting for 30 hours of television advertisements. For children ages 8-12, it only gets worse:
these kids view over 7,600 food ads per year, or 50 hours (3). Obviously, kids are looking at
food, and they’re looking at a lot of it. In fact, according to Stitt and Kunkel, for every hour of
their television time, 4 minutes and 25 seconds is taken by food ads (573). Because they are
viewing a constant stream of food advertisements, kids’ thoughts continually turn towards food,
and their extended one-on-one time with the television gives food advertisers ample time to
instruct them concerning the tastiest and most exciting victuals.
The sheer volume of advertisements children view should not worry us so much as the
foods these advertisements promote. If all food advertisements portrayed carrots and celery
sticks, perhaps our children would possess similar physiques; but in reality, the bulk of food
advertisements promote the benefits of high-calorie foods containing only distant impressions of
nutritional value. In a study published by the peer-reviewed Health Communication journal in
2008, researchers found, through the extensive review of children’s television programs, “that
the large majority of all food products marketed to children (84.0%) are for items that are not
appropriate as part of a regular diet” (see table 1). Sugared cereal alone accounted for 26% of
total food advertisements, and unsurprisingly, less than 4% of the advertisements showed healthy
food products (Stitt and Kunkel 581). Toucan and his Froot Loops are not an anomaly during
children’s television time. Unfortunately, they represent the general rule. Because the mass
barrage of advertisements children view informs them concerning what they should eat, the
prospects do not bode well for kids—who already possess a sweet tooth.
Distribution of food product types shown during televised food advertising targeted at children
Source: Stitt, Carmen, and Dale Kunkel. “Food Advertising during Children’s Television
Programming on Broadcast and Cable Channels.” Health Communication, vol. 23, no. 6, Fall
2008, p. 579, doi:10.1080/10410230802465258.
Methods and Mechanisms
Children have an innate preference for sugary, salty, and fatty foods, and television food
advertisements highlight and expand their appetite for these foods. A 2016 study published in the
Journal of Pediatrics found that as a child views a food advertisement, his brain is groomed to be
more accepting of food. In the study, children were exposed to nonfood advertisements, food
advertisements, and blank screens (the control). Following their exposure to one of these
situations, researchers tested their preferences for various foods. Regardless of which
advertisements they had seen, the children based their food preferences almost solely on taste.
However, after children viewed the food commercials, this effect was significantly
exacerbated—so children placed even greater value on taste when making food decisions (Bruce
et al.). Possibly underlying this effect, the researchers also found that food advertisements
increased the activity on a portion of the brain involved in estimating the worth of rewards. This
study shows that advertisements heavily tilt children’s decision-making processes in favor of
tasty foods—but the very foods they should be avoiding. Thus, when children wake up for
breakfast, sit down for dinner, or reach for lunch and snacks in between, they tend to turn to
high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, contributing to chronic energy imbalances and later obesity.
Food advertisements hold great sway over children’s food preferences, while they
influence adults to a lesser degree, and one reason children are more easily influenced by
advertisements stems from their incomplete cognitive development. The Committee on Food
Marketing explains that children do not attain the ability to differentiate between ads and non-ads
while viewing television until they are about 8, and they do not actively do so without being
signaled until they are about 11 (5). This means that children’s psychological barriers are down
while they look at the screen, increasing their susceptibility to the persuasion of advertisements.
Similarly, children are limited in their abilities to process and store information, and because of
this, they may overlook aspects of advertisements, such as nutritional disclaimers, to attend to
more engaging features of advertisements, such as animation or jingles (Wicks et al. 94). Clearly,
food advertisers have an obligation to ensure their commercials are not manipulating children’s
immature thinking abilities.
Alas, food companies have not kept their obligation—they often take advantage of
children’s underdeveloped cognitions through the advertising methods they use. A review of a
few studies shows us that advertisers do not hesitate to employ a wide range of tactics to market
their products on children’s television. One of the most common approaches used, as revealed by
Stitt and Kunkel, is a fun or happiness theme (579), such as showing children going on a treasure
hunt for their favorite cereal and feeling immense excitement and wonder upon discovering it
(577). Advertisers use animation, special effects, jingles, or other techniques in combinations to
foster an emotional connection between children and food and to promote kids’ memory of their
products. Unfortunately, at young ages, children often cannot distinguish between animation or
special effects, and reality. Due to this fact, they may build strong associations, based on
unrealistic expectations, with advertised food products (Wicks et al. 95). The associations
children create with food during youth set a pattern of eating habits that outlast childhood, and
the dangers of basing these habits on advertisements are evident, as revealed in the following
The Drive to Dine
Children’s susceptibility to advertisements can spur a seemingly unconscious urge to eat.
In a study done by researchers at Yale, children aged 7-11 were divided into two groups. Both
watched the same 14-minute television cartoon, but the commercial breaks were filled with
different advertisements: one with food advertisements for low-nutrition foods such as potato
chips or waffle sticks with syrup, the other with advertisements for games and entertainment
products. Each child was given a snack to munch on as they watched the cartoon, and researchers
measured the amount of the snack remaining after the television segment was finished. The study
found that children who viewed the food advertisements ate 45% more of the snack food than did
those who viewed other commercials (Harris et al.). The children viewing food commercials did
not consciously choose to eat more food, but the food advertisements primed them to do so. The
overconsumption of calories during one 14-minute show is small, but it can build over years of
advertisement exposure into a chronic imbalance between energy consumed and energy
This effect is not only observed while children view television; it lasts significantly after
the exposure as well. Two studies conducted by Halford et al. explored this phenomenon by
comparing food consumption in both 5-7- and 9-11-year-old children after they watched a
cartoon containing advertisements. In both age groups, the children who viewed food
advertisements consumed significantly more calories after viewing these ads than did children
who viewed other advertisements. In the study for the 9-11-year-olds, the researchers found that
children’s ability to recognize food advertisements correlated with the amount of food eaten
subsequently (“Effect of Television”). Significantly, the study conducted for the 5-7-year-olds
proved that this overconsumption doesn’t just occur with advertised products. In this study, the
foods presented following the cartoon did not have product packaging (“Beyond-Brand Effect”).
Because the children increased their consumption of all foods—not just the ones they had seen in
the advertisements—this indicates that the priming effect spreads to many foods beyond specific
brands. Through years and years of persuasion from Cinnamon Toast Crunch, McDonald’s, and
others, children are not being told to eat because they’re hungry; they’re supposed to eat because
the food they are shown is deliciously tantalizing. It may be deliciously tantalizing, but it’s
The research reviewed thus far has examined the short-term effects of food
advertisements on children’s eating behaviors. Not only do advertisements motivate our
youngsters to overeat during and immediately following exposure, but over time they also
negatively impact children’s general food preferences. Difficulties arise when performing
experiments to judge whether food advertisements affect long-term preferences and eating
patterns because it is nearly impossible to control every single commercial children are exposed
to, so research cannot definitively establish causality. However, the correlation of multiple
factors encourages the conclusion that advertisers can powerfully shape children’s day-to-day
eating habits. These factors include measuring children’s requests for specific food products,
their attempts to persuade parents to buy products at the grocery store, and their preferences
towards advertised versus non-advertised food products (Story and French). In an extensive
review of relevant studies, Story and French from the University of Minnesota found an
association between children’s viewing of food advertisements and subsequent partiality towards
the advertised products. Additionally, they reported, television food advertisements strongly
predict children’s fondness for high sugar and high fat foods. Clearly, children who view many
low-nutrient food advertisements tend to prefer low-nutrient foods.
Manipulated by television, children’s food preferences partly result in poor dietary habits
by traveling through the medium of their food requests to their parents, and many studies show
how food advertisements increase children’s appeals for specific products. For example, in one
observational study, researchers found a significant correlation between total weekly screen time
and future requests for foods and drinks (Chamberlain et al.). Advertisers effectively sell their
products in this way—the child sees a food on TV, the child requests it, and the parent gets it.
This prompts the question of how much sway children really hold over the food they can
eat. Admittedly, they can choose whether or not to consume the victuals placed in front of them,
but how much leeway do parents give their children over what goes into the shopping cart in the
first place? A University of Minnesota study answers this question. By observing parent-child
interactions in various grocery stores, the authors discovered that children initiated food
selections 50.4% of the time, and they played some role in nearly 60% of food selections. When
children made specific food requests, their petitions were granted 47.8% of the time
(O’Dougherty et al.). This evidently shows that parents give great power to their children over
the food they buy, and these results have been demonstrated in other studies as well (Ward and
Wackman). Because advertisements predict children’s requests, and because children’s requests
influence parents’ purchases, food advertising towards children is ultimately connected with
parents’ buying behaviors. Thus, although parents themselves may not see much of the television
advertising their children view, these advertisements perform a potent, if indirect, role in
deciding the contents of the refrigerator and pantry. So sugared cereal and other low-nutrient
foods not only dominate children’s thought; they also dominate children’s food supply.
The factors discussed in detail thus far are by no means the only factors influencing a
child’s weight and general health. But in all reality, they play a significant part: the more food
advertisements a child watches, the higher his Body Mass Index (BMI) is likely to be. This was
clearly demonstrated through an analytic article published in the American Journal of Public
Health in 2010. In this observational study, researchers analyzed time-use diaries taken of over
3,000 children aged 0 to 12 years, with one baseline diary taken in 1997 and another diary taken
in 2002. From this data, researchers classified the television content children viewed based on
whether it contained in-program commercials or not. The researchers also obtained access to a
range of other data concerning the sampled children and their families. Because of this, the
researchers not only gained the ability to measure the relationship between content type and
BMI; they were also able to examine the relationship between BMI and many other variables,
including eating in front of the television, amount of sleep the children received, and mother’s
BMI (which can represent genetic factors and dietary or exercise patterns of the household).
Because researchers examined these relationships, they were also able to control for them when
they analyzed the relationship between television content type and BMI. In effect, they
eliminated many confounding variables and increased the likelihood that any statistically
significant results occurred through a causal, rather than simply correlational, mechanism.
The results of this study merit substantial consideration. The researchers, Zimmerman
and Bell, hail the Universities of California and Washington (respectively), and they published
their findings in the earlier-mentioned peer-reviewed journal in 2010. They reported that for
children under 7 years of age during 1997, every additional hour per day of advertisement
exposure predicted an increase of BMI in 2002 of 0.11 standard deviations—a highly significant
association. They also found similar results for children over the age of 7 after controlling for the
children’s baseline BMI in 1997. From this study, we observe a direct relationship between the
amount of time children view food advertisements and their obesity: the more they view, the
more likely they will be overweight or obese. Especially noteworthy is the fact that this effect
was only observed for television containing commercial content; it was not observed with the
increase of educational television content. These results are obviously correlational, but because
the researchers controlled for the possibly confounding variables listed above, a causal
mechanism is, in fact, quite probable. This clearly demonstrates that advertisements play a role
in motivating children to eat beyond that of the action of television-viewing itself.
The study just discussed is by no means the only one to demonstrate a likely causal role
television food advertising plays in predicting obesity. In 2006, the Institute of Medicine, using
funding provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released a landmark
report on the influences of children’s food marketing on health-related outcomes. Their findings,
which represent a comprehensive review of 123 studies, show significant evidence for a
relationship between television advertisement viewing and obesity for children between 2 and 11
years of age. Based on a careful examination of all possible confounding variables and possible
relationships these variables share with obesity, they admittedly find insufficient evidence to
conclusively establish a causal relationship between television advertising exposure and obesity.
However, they note that the strong association remains “after taking alternative explanations into
account” (Committee on Food Marketing 279-293). Performing research that can observe and
measure the effects of television advertising on obesity from start to finish poses great
difficulties, as many intermediate variables (such as those listed in the introduction) can enhance
or inhibit this relationship. Yet the fact that childhood obesity presents such a major problem in
the United States today should urge parents, teachers, and governments to carefully review all its
possible causes—in this case a very likely cause—and take action to oppose them. Twenty years
from now, we will not regret doing too much to oppose the tide of obesity. More likely, we will
regret not doing enough. Because of this, we must begin to fight the effects of television
advertisements in the absence of a proven causal relationship between them and obesity.
All of the factors discussed in this paper, which children’s food advertisements greatly
influence—unhealthy food preferences, greater food consumption, and increased requests for
advertised foods—add upon each other. Like a snowball, the mounds of calories build upon each
other and deposit themselves onto the folds of children’s skin. But the resulting rolls of fat do not
cherubs make, however innocent children may be. They actually place a great burden upon
children’s emotional and physical health, and no child should carry this burden. It is essential for
children to establish healthy weights and eating patterns while they are young, because failure to
do so not only lowers children’s quality of life while they are young, but it also sets children up
for a lifetime of physical and emotional problems which could have been avoided.
“Do whatever makes you happy,” says Toucan Sam. “Whatever Froots your Loops.” But
to ultimately reverse the trend of childhood obesity, we must not do whatever Froots our Loops.
Parents must deeply invest themselves in their child’s health, as the responsibility to mediate
factors that contribute to childhood obesity ultimately rests upon them. Unmarried college
students must prepare now to be invested parents in this regard. And regardless of whether we
have children or not, we hold an obligation, as concerned citizens, to actively pursue
constitutional policy solutions at the local, state, and national levels. By taking these steps, we
will ultimately make our children happy: we will release them from the troubles of obesity to
enjoy a truly light and carefree childhood.
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