Trends in the Nutritional Content of Television Food Advertisements Seen by Children in the United States

Analyses by Age, Food Categories, and Companies

This study examined trends in children's exposure to food, beverage and restaurant TV ads before and after the launch of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a voluntary agreement among some industry leaders to limit ads for unhealthy foods and beverages aimed at children 11 and younger.

From 2003 to 2009, there was a significant decline in children’s exposure to ads for unhealthy foods and beverages. Yet in 2009, 86 percent of food and beverage ads still featured unhealthy items, defined by the study as products high in saturated fat, sugar or sodium. This percentage was even higher among the CFBAI companies—88 percent of their ads in 2009 were for unhealthy products.

Key Findings:

  • Kids’ daily exposure to food, beverage and restaurant TV ads declined from 2003 to 2009—by 18 percent among children ages 2 to 5 and by 7 percent for those ages 6 to11.
  • Exposure to fast-food restaurants ads increased significantly from 2003 to 2009—by 21 percent among children ages 2 to 5 and by 31 percent for those ages 6 to 11. Notably, McDonald’s and Burger King were the only fast-food restaurants participating in the CFBAI, and they accounted for almost half of the total fast-food ads seen by children.
  • From 2003 to 2009, ads promoting regular soda dropped by 68 percent among children ages 2 to 5 and those ages 6 to 11.

The authors conclude that major changes are needed to make industry self-regulation effective. They cite lack of common nutrition standards that meet guidelines proposed by government agencies and low participation in the CFBAI, especially among fast-food restaurants, as barriers to progress.