New Research Shows How Sugary Drinks Are Marketed to Children in the Age of Social Media

Nov 19, 2014, 10:27 AM

Beverage companies spent $866 million to advertise unhealthy drinks in 2013, and children and teens remained key target audiences for that advertising, according to a new report released today at APHA by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. The report “Sugary Drink FACTS 2014” highlights some progress regarding beverage marketing to young people, but also shows that companies still have a long way to go to improve their marketing practices and the nutritional quality of their products to support young people’s health.

“Despite promises by major beverage companies to be part of the solution in addressing childhood obesity, our report shows that companies continue to market their unhealthy products directly to children and teens,” said Jennifer Harris, PhD, Rudd Center’s director of marketing initiatives and lead author of the report. “They have also rapidly expanded marketing in social and mobile media that are popular with young people, but much more difficult for parents to monitor.”

Harris and her team examined changes in the nutritional content of sugar-sweetened drinks including sodas, energy drinks, fruit drinks, and others. They also analyzed marketing tactics for 23 companies that advertised these products, including changes in advertising to children and teens on TV, the internet, and newer media like mobile apps and social media. Researchers also examined changes in the nutrition and marketing of diet beverages, 100% juice, and water. The report was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Learn more about the key findings of the report in the following exclusive interview with Harris. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

NPH:  You issued the first version of this new report in 2011. What are the changes since then?

Jennifer Harris: The biggest change that we saw was a very significant decline in advertising on television. Preschoolers are seeing 33% fewer TV ads for sugary drinks in 2013 than they saw in 2010. Children are seeing 39% fewer, and teens are seeing 30% fewer. So, that was really some great news to see, but some categories had bigger declines than others. Fruit drinks went down by about 50%, but advertising for energy drinks that kids see actually increased. So, there was some good news and some bad news. 

The other thing that we saw was one of the biggest recommendations that we made in our first report: asking the companies to be more transparent about their ingredients and especially the caffeine and the sugar in their products. The major beverage companies have followed through on that, and most of the product packages show the calories on the front of the label. We were also able to get caffeine listed on the label for almost all of the products, including the energy drink products, so that was some other progress we saw.

NPH:  What are the health concerns for sugary drinks?

Harris: There really isn’t such a thing as a healthy sugary drink, because basically the only calories in the products are sugar. The median sugar in a children’s drink like Capri Sun fruit drink or SunnyD, is 16 grams in 8 ounces which is more sugar than children should consume for the entire day. So, if that’s all the sugar they get in the day, it’s fine, but chances are it’s not.

Drinking these products at all is not healthy for kids. And those that say they have juice have only 5 to 10 percent juice. And then another third of the children’s products contain artificial sweeteners, and that’s a concern for children’s products because parents tell us that they don’t want to serve their children drinks that contain artificial sweeteners but it’s hard to tell they do because the labeling will say something like “no sugar added, or no artificial colors. Sweeteeners is one area where improvement in labeling of content is needed.

NPH:  How sophisticated is sugary beverage marketing on mobile apps?

Harris: What many of the beverage companies have done since our last report is now they don’t just have a Facebook page for the product. They have Facebook pages for all of the things that they sponsor, like, Red Bull has Red Bull X-fighters, Red Bull Air Race, Red Bull Music Academy; Red Bull Flugtag. Coca-Cola has My Coke Rewards; Coca-Cola freestyle. Mountain Dew has Mountain Dew Green Label. Rock Star has Rock Star Mayhem Fest; Rock Star Uproar Fest. So, they have all these accounts, and they post every day. They post videos which also appear on YouTube and Vine. They post contests. They post cool pictures that they want kids to send to each other. They integrate all the content between the different social media platforms so if you’re a fan on one, then you get all these posts inviting you to join the other ones and inviting you to share them with your friends.

I think if most parents saw what was happening, they would be appalled. You know, this is where kids spend their time now, and it’s not just on their computers, it’s on their phones, so it could be anywhere. And, it’s all designed to create engagement with the brand to get you to feel like you’re part of this community that drinks Red Bull or Coca-Cola or whatever. It becomes a lifestyle.

NPH: The last report shared concern that the companies were targeting Black and Latino kids in particular. Is that still the case?

Harris: Yes, in fact it has increased in the past three years, and advertising on Spanish language media went up 44% from 2013. And there are some products that are only advertised on Spanish language TV like SK Energy, which is a new energy shot product that doesn’t advertise on English. 7-Up only advertises on Spanish. Some brands like SunnyD spend a third of their advertising budgets on Spanish language TV which is very high. Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, same thing. And at the same time, they’ve reduced their advertising on regular television, so that’s contributed to the decline overall, but they’ve focused more on Spanish. Black children and teens see more than twice as many TV ads for sugary drinks and energy drinks than white children and teens see and that disparity has gone up.

And Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper have all promised to expand their marketing to these audiences as a future growth opportunity for their business, not making the connection that if they’re growing their business by selling more sugary drinks to these populations that are more at risk of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease that is a major public health issue. There are also lots of events and sponsorships with soccer and black and Latino music artists, sports figures and the companies say the strategy has crossover appeal which means that they – if they use black celebrities or Latino celebrities, it appeals to other uses as well because it makes these products seem more cool. So, this is a strategy that they talk about very publicly in the trade press.

NPH:  Is there something they can do to make the drinks healthier?

Harris: Well, we did look at that and the question is ‘do children ever need to drink sugary drinks?’ I would argue that they don’t, but the companies have come up with some products that are lower in sugar than they were previously. For example, SunnyD now has 14 grams of sugar per serving. Now, I wouldn’t argue that’s a healthy drink. The soda companies have introduced what they’re calling mid-level sodas like Pepsi Next or Mountain Dew Kickstart. Coca-Cola just came out with Coca-Cola Life which has 60 calories per 12 ounce can instead of 120. But, it’s still all sugar.

I think one of the other interesting things we found was the discrepancy between how much they spend advertising sugary drinks versus 100% juice and water. They spend over four times as much to advertise the sugary as they do the healthier drinks in their portfolios and that hasn’t increased over the past three years.

NPH: And how would you like to see them improving their marketing practices?

Harris: The companies have made pledges to only advertise to kids 12 and older and consider children 12 years and older to be their prime audience for their advertising. They’re becoming more independent from their parents, so they’re developing habits that are going to last them for a long time and that’s also the time when the companies are focusing their marketing on them because they know this is their future consumer. Also, none of the companies have any kind of policies about what products they’ll advertise in particular to the multicultural youth that are also facing greater health risks from consumption of their products.

NPH:  What do you want parents to know?

Harris: Well, I think they need to know that there are lots of – that the products, especially the children’s drinks that they think may be healthy are basically sugar water and – they need to ignore all the messages on the front of the packages about lower sugar or vitamin C or no artificial flavors and look on the ingredient list to find out exactly what’s in the products. And I think parents also can help advocate for better marketing policies, especially supporting the schools as they try to take out sugary drinks for sale there and also supporting that in other areas of their community and also letting the beverage companies know that they don’t want them marketing unhealthy products to their kids. Our website has links for parents to learn more about what is actually in the drinks that they might be serving their kids as well as what they can do to help improve the marketing.

NPH:  What are your recommendations for policy makers? What can they be doing?

Harris: Well, I think the product labeling could be addressed by the FDA and also set standards for which products can feature positive nutrition messages on the package.

And going back to energy drinks, the American Academy of Pediatrics has said that children under 18 should never consume energy drinks or shots. But, the industry’s position is that their products are safe for anyone 12 years and older. That’s not the medical community’s or the public health community’s position, and I just think that’s one of the major things that has to change.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.