Despite Promises, Cereal Companies Play on Children’s Imaginations to Promote Unhealthy Products

    • August 27, 2013

New Haven, Conn. – Despite industry promises to avoid deceptive and inappropriate advertising to children, cereal companies promote unhealthy products to children using messages and images that exploit their imaginations and mislead them about the characteristics of a product, according to a study by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. The study is published online in the Journal of Health Communication

Through the industry’s Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), companies voluntarily pledge to not advertise to children in a deceptive, unfair, or inappropriate manner. CARU standards take into account the special vulnerabilities of children, like their susceptibility to being misled or influenced, and their lack of cognitive skills needed to evaluate the credibility of advertising. In addition, CARU promises not to exploit children’s imaginations or mislead children about the benefits of using a product.

Researchers viewed 158 cereal advertisements that appeared on U.S. television between 2008 and 2009. They identified the types of messages, creative techniques and eating behaviors presented in each of the ads. Using data obtained from Nielsen, a media research company, the researchers examined how often children viewed the specific products and messages in these advertisements.

The study found that despite pledges to not exploit children’s imaginations, 91% of the ads for sugary cereal viewed by children associated cereals with adventures or emotional appeals, depicting the product as a plaything providing entertainment and fun, rather than a source of nutrition and sustenance.

In addition, despite promises not to mislead children about the benefits of using a product, researchers found that 59% of the ads did just that by, for example, associating the product with having fun or being cool and popular.

“These findings raise ethical, as well as public health concerns, given children’s limited ability to critically process the messages raised in cereal advertising, “ said lead author Megan LoDolce, MA, Research Associate at the Rudd Center. “Food companies must adhere to their promises and limit messages in child-directed advertising that confuse and mislead children about nutrition and healthy eating.” 

According to the Institute of Medicine, children are especially vulnerable to the influence of advertising. Younger children in particular are unable to differentiate between media meant to promote a product and media meant to entertain. The researchers argued that because children are more susceptible to advertising, the current commercial environment makes it likely that children will normalize the consumption of sugary cereals. 

The study was funded by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Rudd Foundation.

The paper was co-authored by the Rudd Center’s Megan LoDolce, MA, Research Associate; Jennifer Harris, PhD, MBA, Director of Marketing Initiatives; and Marlene Schwartz, PhD, Director.


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, measurable, and timely change. For more than 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 Follow the Foundation on Twitter at or on Facebook at


About the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity

The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity is a non-profit research and public policy organization devoted to improving the world’s diet, preventing obesity, and reducing weight stigma. The Rudd Center serves as a leader in building broad-based consensus to change diet and activity patterns, while holding industry and government agencies responsible for safeguarding public health. The Rudd Center serves as a leading research institution and clearinghouse for resources that add to our understanding of the complex forces affecting how we eat, how we stigmatize overweight and obese people, and how we can change.


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