Setting Our Sights on Healthy Media Consumption

Feb 23, 2015, 4:27 PM, Posted by Alonzo L. Plough

Alonzo Plough, PhD, MPH, is vice president, Research-Evaluation-Learning and chief science officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Read more from his series.

Fast Food TV Advertising Aimed at Kids - Part 2

Childhood obesity is a tremendous threat to the current and future health of our young people. Compared with their healthy-weight peers, obese children face a higher risk for serious health problems, miss more school, have greater psychological stress, and are more likely to become obese as adults. If we don’t do something to reverse this epidemic, the nation’s current generation could be the first in history to live sicker and die younger than their parents’ generation. This is why RWJF recently pledged $500 million over the next 10 years to support strategies aimed at helping all children in the United States grow up at a healthy weight. This new funding increases our investment in preventing childhood obesity to more than $1 billion—the largest commitment we have ever made on a single issue.

We are in it for the long haul, and we have already seen signs of progress. Research published last year showed obesity prevalence among 2 to 5 years old dropped by approximately 40 percent in eight years. But nearly one-third of children and adolescents in the U.S. are still obese or overweight, and more than 25 million are at risk for high blood pressure or Type 2 diabetes because of their weight.

Improving the nutrition of children’s foods is an essential step in helping to reduce obesity rates, but marketing of unhealthy foods also plays a powerful role in shaping young people’s food preferences and consumption. To address this, part of the Foundation’s research strategy is to monitor the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages and to measure its impact on childhood obesity. To build evidence around what is working in reducing childhood obesity and identify where progress is needed, RWJF is funding research at the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Here is what Rudd researchers have found:

  • While many companies have reduced their advertising of unhealthy foods on children’s television, children’s media tastes expand far beyond kid-oriented programming. The Better Business Bureau's Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a voluntary program that includes industry leaders such as McDonalds, General Mills and Pepsico, pledges to advertise only healthier options to children. The CFBAI pledge applies to all media (television, magazines, websites) whose audiences are made up of at least 35 percent of children age 11 and under. By using detailed media data from Nielsen, Rudd researchers found that the CFBAI parameters capture less than one-half of the TV ads viewed by children under the age of 12 and none of the websites they regularly visit. In fact, even though the CFBAI companies scaled back on their television advertising, they placed 46 million ads for their products on children’s websites in 2013. The CFBAI measures also don’t factor in marketing that reaches children on mobile devices and social media sites that include Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
  • Companies extensively market fast food to older children and teens. In the Fast Food Marketing 360 Brief, researchers explain that a 50 percent decrease in display ads on youth websites has almost completely been replaced by an increase in ads and videos on social media sites that include Facebook (viewed by an average of 18 million 2-18 year olds every month), Twitter and YouTube. Marketing on mobile devices is also on the rise, with most fast food restaurants offering free apps available for download that provide nearby locations and menu choices.

As the media universe expands, it’s clear that more remains to be done to ensure that industry self-regulation and government guidelines adequately protect children from exposure to unhealthy food and beverage marketing.

RWJF-supported research is helping to jumpstart the dialogue about expanding the current definitions and approaches used to advertise and market foods and beverages to children.  For example, the Healthy Eating Research national program convened a panel of national experts who developed recommendations for responsible food marketing practices directed at children. They offer model definitions for food marketing practices, such as:

  • The child audience is defined as birth to 14 years of age.
  • Media and venues are considered child-directed if children constitute 25 percent or more of the audience or if an assessment of the marketing strategies, techniques, characteristics, and venue suggests that children are the target demographic for the advertising or marketing message.
  • Any marketing that is especially appealing to kids is child-directed.
  • Brands marketed to children contain only products that meet nutrition criteria.

When paired with strong nutrition criteria already in place, these recommendations may help leaders across many sectors find common ground to create healthy food environments for all children.

Adopting such approaches need not be onerous for food and beverage companies. In fact, Better-For-You Foods: It’s Just Good Business, another research effort supported by RWJF, found that between 2006 and 2011, companies that committed to growing their lower-calorie/better-for-you foods and beverages enjoyed superior operating profit growth. The healthier items also drove more than 70 percent of companies’ sales growth.

How does this all relate back to curbing childhood obesity? It’s simple; companies are advertising across an increasing range of media platforms to reach children and influence their choices around food and beverages. This marketing must encourage nutritious, healthy foods and beverages if we really want to reduce childhood obesity. Producing, pricing, and promoting healthy products to make them the easy and everyday choice for kids and families could be a win-win. There is solid evidence that an emphasis on healthier products and responsible marketing is good not only for consumers, but also for the bottom line.