Food Marketing Expenditures Aimed at Youth

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

At the request of Congress, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) studied food and beverage marketing to children. This article provides a close examination of the FTC’s 2012 report and reveals concerning trends about food marketing expenditures and children’s exposure to ads for unhealthy foods and beverages.

According to the FTC report, food and beverage marketing expenditures aimed at youths dropped from $2.1 billion in 2006 to $1.8 billion in 2009 (an inflation-adjusted 19.5 percent). The current article finds that 38.7 percent of the decline was due to a decrease in the cost and distribution of toys that fast-food restaurants offered with kids’ meals.

Key Findings

  • The vast majority of youth-directed ads promote unhealthy foods and drinks, such as fast-food products, carbonated beverages, and cereals, candies, and other items that are high in sugar and/or fat. Compared with the foods and beverages marketed to adults, those marketed to children continue to be much less healthy overall. 

  • Television is still the dominant platform for advertising to youths, and kids’ exposure to television ads for unhealthy products remains extremely high. In 2011, children ages 2 to 11 saw about a dozen television ads each day for products typically high in saturated fat, sugar, or sodium. 

  • Fast-food restaurants increased their spending directed at children ages 2 to 11 by an inflation-adjusted 59.5 percent (or $63.1 million) on television ads and 433.6 percent (or $13.5 million) on new media from 2006 to 2009.

  • Fast-food restaurants increased their spending directed at teens ages 12 to 17 by an inflation-adjusted 21.7 percent (or $29.2 million) on television ads and 834.7 percent (or $7.6 million) on new media from 2006 to 2009.

  • While school-based marketing and in-store marketing to youth declined, product placement, event sponsorships, cross-promotion licenses, celebrity fees, and other marketing increased 7.9 percent.

The current analysis highlighted the lack of progress in existing industry-initiated actions,” the authors write, “and demonstrated that stronger self-regulatory efforts are needed to noticeably reduce youth exposure to unhealthy food marketing. Continued monitoring of expenditures, exposure, and nutritional content is needed, and policy actions by federal, state, and local governments and regulatory agencies may be required.”