Trends in Exposure to Television Food Advertisements Among Children and Adolescents in the United States

In this study, researchers examined changes in children’s and adolescents’ total exposure to food advertising. The study reports that children and teens are seeing fewer television advertisements for fruit drinks, regular soda and sweets such as candy, cookies and pastries. However, youths of all ages are exposed to substantially more TV ads for fast-food restaurants.

The study follows self-regulation pledges by major food and beverage companies to eliminate unhealthy TV ads targeting children ages 11 and younger. Although recent changes in ad exposure indicate certain progress, the study concludes that continued monitoring of food advertising exposure is needed to further assess those corporate pledges.

Drawing from television ratings data licensed from Nielsen Media Research, the study assessed total annual exposure to food advertising during 2003, 2005 and 2007. Ratings data were assessed separately for three age groups: children ages 2-5 and 6-11 and adolescents ages 12-17. Ratings measure the percentage of households with televisions watching a program or advertisement over a specified time interval providing actual advertisement exposure.

Key Findings:

  • Between 2003 and 2007, there was a 27 percent to 30 percent decrease in children’s and teens’ exposure to beverage ads. Exposure to heavily advertised sugar-sweetened fruit drinks and non-diet soft drinks showed decreases of 60 percent to 75 percent.
  • Exposure to ads for sweets declined, down 41 percent for children ages 2-5; 29 percent for children ages 6-11; and 12 percent for adolescents ages 12-17.
  • Daily average exposure to total food advertising fell by 13.7 percent and 3.7 percent among ages 2-5 and 6-11, respectively. For ages 12-17, however, daily average exposure to food advertisements increased by nearly 4 percent.

    Among the negative trends identified in fast-food advertising:
  • Exposure to ads for fast-food restaurants increased for all age groups, up more than 20 percent for ages 12-17; more than 12 percent for ages 6-11; and nearly 5 percent for ages 2-5.
  • By 2007, fast-food ads were the most frequently seen type of food ad among both children and teens.
  • Among African-American youths, exposure to fast-food ads increased at more than twice the rate for their white counterparts: up almost 30 percent among ages 12-17; almost 16 percent among ages 6-12; and almost 7 percent for ages 2-11.

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 pledge by major U.S. food manufacturers to shift the mix of advertising messaging directed to children under 12 to encourage healthier and/or better-for-you dietary choices and healthy lifestyles. Powell and her co-authors studied exposure to advertisements before and after the launch of this initiative. By December 2007, 13 companies had joined the initiative, and six companies had started to implement their pledges.