POST TIME: 19 December, 2017 00:00 00 AM
Keeping children safe from food ads

Keeping children safe 
from food ads

Young children in the United States are still seeing TV ads for foods and beverages even though major food companies had promised not to target preschoolers, a new study finds. Experts say children younger than 6 can't distinguish between advertising and other types of information and therefore should not be exposed to any advertising.

In 2006, a number of major food and beverage companies and fast food restaurants voluntarily pledged to avoid advertising their products to children younger than 6.

However, the new study from the University of Connecticut's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that children 2 to 5 years old still see TV ads from these companies daily (an average of 1.6 a day) because they watch programs and networks that are also popular with older children.

The study found that these food and beverage ads appeal to children younger than 6 as much as they appeal to those ages 6 to 11.

Preschoolers also were less likely to have tried the advertised products before seeing the ads, which the researchers said makes them more likely to be influenced by the ads.

"Food companies and media companies airing children's programming should do more to protect young children from advertising that takes advantage of their vulnerabilities," said study lead author Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the center.

"At a minimum food companies should not advertise during programming where children under age 6 are likely to see their ads, regardless of whether older children are also watching," she said in a university news release.

"Media companies that broadcast children's TV programming also could take action, such as the Walt Disney Company's initiative to establish nutrition standards for food advertising to children on its networks," Harris said.  Kids today are bombarded with a constant barrage of advertising, often camouflaged as entertainment, and not even the top researchers in the field know exactly how it might be influencing them. That’s because there’s scant research on how many of the newer types of ads, such as online games created by companies or viral marketing, might be affecting young minds.

“No one knows what impact these new media platforms will have, and there’s clear evidence that media and screen time can affect kids’ brain development,” says James Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that provides education and advocacy around media issues affecting kids. He adds that research shows teen girls can suffer from body image issues and eating disorders related to media and advertising messages.

According to a research brief published by Common Sense Media this spring, kids age 8 and older spend an average of over seven hours a day watching TV, using the computer or engaging with other types of screen time. Kids between ages 2 and 8 spend almost two hours a day watching or interacting with a screen. Almost all types of screen media involve some kind of advertising, the report notes, adding that there is a dearth of research on just how those marketing messages impact kids and teens.

Previous study has found that children lack the ability to view marketing messages skeptically – or even identify them as marketing messages versus pure entertainment – until they are teenagers. That means they can perceive advertising messages as truths, and those messages can stick with them into adulthood.

In fact, a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Consumer Research found that the impact of exposure to childhood advertising can linger well into adulthood, continuing to influence how even grown-ups perceive brands. “So much of the advertising oriented toward children is about fun,” says Merrie Brucks, co-author of the paper and professor of marketing at University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management. On an unconscious level, adults continue to perceive those same brands and their products as not only fun, but also as healthy , which might not be the case.