Unhealthy Food Ads Dominate Spanish TV Shows for Kids

    • May 8, 2013

Princeton, NJ – More than 84 percent of all foods and beverages advertised to children on Spanish-language television shows are unhealthy, according to a study published in the Journal of Health Communication. Among companies that pledged to reform their child-directed advertising practices to encourage healthier choices, 78 percent of ads for children on Spanish-language television and 69 percent of ads for children on English-language television were for unhealthy foods or drinks.

The study, “Food Marketing to Children on U.S. Spanish-Language Television,” is the first large-scale effort to analyze food and beverage advertising on Spanish-language children’s television. It was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its Healthy Eating Research program.

 “All children, and especially Latinos, are bombarded with television ads that sell junk food and sugary drinks,” said Dale Kunkel, Professor of Communication at the University of Arizona at Tucson and the lead author of the study. “These findings are particularly concerning given the high rates of obesity among Latino youths.”

Kunkel and his colleagues analyzed the ad content for 158 Spanish-language television shows for children and compared them with those found on 139 English-language programs. The ads analyzed for the study were collected between February and April 2009. The majority of child-directed ads (84% on Spanish shows and 74% on English shows) promoted Whoa products, such as candy, sugary cereals, fries, and sodas, which fall into the poorest nutritional category as defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Whoa products are high in calories, fat, and/or added sugar. The DHHS recommends very limited consumption of such items.

Other key study findings:

  • Fast-food commercials accounted for nearly half (46%) of all child-targeted food advertising on Spanish-language television.
  • More than three-quarters (78%) of all Spanish-language food ads used popular cartoon characters to market Whoa products. The same was true for 49 percent of English-language ads.
  • Ads for healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, were extremely rare, accounting for just 1 percent or fewer of all ads in either language.

Industry leaders have publicly recognized the need to reform food advertisements targeting children. In 2006, the Council of Better Business Bureaus launched the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a voluntary pledge by major U.S. food manufacturers to advertise only healthier and/or better-for-you dietary choices to children under 12. More than a dozen companies now participate, but according to the study authors, many of the companies defined “healthy” to include products that are high in sugar, saturated fats, and empty calories.

“Our findings suggest that the food and beverage industry’s pledge to self-regulate is not effective, especially on Spanish-language television,” Kunkel said. “Most of the ads aimed at kids feature Whoa products, so clearly there’s a big gap between the industry’s definition of healthy and what nutrition experts say.”

Previous research shows that the marketing of high-calorie and nutrient-poor foods and beverages is linked to overweight and obesity among children and youths in the United States. The authors point out that young children are unduly influenced by ads because they are not capable of comprehending the persuasive intent behind a commercial.

According to Kunkel, Latino children spend an average of five hours a day watching television and may be particularly vulnerable to ads selling an American lifestyle, one that features popular—but unhealthy foods. Latino children also have disproportionately high rates of obesity: in 2007–2008, 41.7 percent of Mexican American children ages 6 to 11 were obese or overweight compared with 34.5 percent of White children the same age.

The latest Institute of Medicine (IOM) report on strategies to accelerate progress in preventing obesity reiterates the urgent need for the food, beverage, restaurant, and media industries to market only those foods and beverages that support a diet aligned with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to children and teens.

Media Contact:
Christine Clayton, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation media@rwjf.org (609) 627-5937.


About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, measureable, and timely change. For 40 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org. Follow the Foundation on Twitter www.rwjf.org/twitter or Facebook www.rwjf.org/facebook.

About Healthy Eating Research

Healthy Eating Research is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The program supports research on environmental and policy strategies with strong potential to promote healthy eating among children to prevent obesity, especially among lower-income and racial and ethnic populations at highest risk for obesity. For more information, visit www.healthyeatingresearch.org.