Healthy Characters? An Investigation of Marketing Practices in Children's Food Advertising

Two boys playing with toys in a living room, another is running out of room.

The Issue:

Food marketing plays a role in the obesity epidemic. In an effort to help reduce overweight and obesity affecting American children, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), as well as others, recommend limiting the extent to which familiar characters are used in advertising food to children.

This present study assesses the foods, and their nutritional quality, that are most frequently promoted with familiar characters in child-targeted advertising. The study also examines how frequently familiar characters are paired with health messages in this advertising.

Key Findings

  • Familiar characters are used in 73 percent of food ads targeting children, with trade characters most commonly used (56 %).

  • Familiar characters were used most frequent in marketing sugared cereals (88%) and restaurants/fast foods (78%).

  • While 72 percent of the ads promote low nutritional quality foods, 53 percent include a health-related message.


While additional research can help to assess the impact of food marketing recommendations, this study shows that familiar characters are heavily used in advertising food to children.

About the Study:

A total of 577 food advertisements shown in 2011 during children’s programming airing on NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, CW, Nickelodeon, and the Cartoon Network were included in the study.