FoodFacts.com has featured our share of blog posts reviewing the ongoing battle to increase the quality of advertising foods targeted to children. In the past food companies have pledged to self-regulate the ads they are placing in the media, promising to promote healthier products for kids.
A new study out of the Yale Rudd Center and published online in Pediatric Obesity, finds that companies are placing billions of ads for unhealthy foods and beverages on children’s websites. The study evaluated banner ads and other display web advertising on sites that are popular with children – sites like Nick.com and CartoonNetwork.com. It’s the first study that looks closely at food advertising on the web that’s specifically aimed at children.
Rudd Center researchers used syndicated Internet usage data from comScore to identify popular children’s websites and the food advertisements viewed on those web sites from July 2009 through June 2010. Food ads were classified by category and the companies’ participation in the food industry’s self-regulatory program, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI). Researchers also evaluated the nutritional quality of the advertised products. Most large food companies are a part of the CFBAI and have pledged to promote only healthier food choices in advertising targeted to children. Web advertising is included in that pledge.
Researchers found that 3.4 billion display advertisements for food and beverages were viewed on popular children’s websites annually. More than one-half of these ads appeared on just two Viacom sites: Nick.com and NeoPets.com. Children who visited NeoPets.com viewed on average 30 food ads per month. Food Manufacturers who are a part of the CFBAI placed 89% of the food advertisements on children’s websites.
Three-quarters of the advertisements promoted brands that food companies participating in CFBAI identified as healthier dietary choices for child-directed advertising, yet the products in 84% of those ads had high levels of fat, sugar, and/or sodium. Almost two-thirds of food ads were for sugary breakfast cereals and fast food. Researchers noted that advertised foods that were designated by CFBAI companies as healthier dietary choices appropriate for child-directed advertising were less likely to meet nutrition standards proposed by the government than other foods advertised to children.
To address limitations of the CFBAI, the U.S. Congress commissioned an Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG) with representatives from four government agencies to develop more effective guidelines for responsible food marketing to children. The authors assert that stronger nutrition standards are required for foods marketed to children, such as those proposed by the IWG, to meaningfully improve the nutritional quality of food and beverage advertising on children’s web sites.
There have been previous studies conducted in regards to food advertising on television that’s targeted to children. Those studies have shown that the self-regulatory concept of the CFBAI haven’t changed much on TV in terms of the nutritional quality of the foods marketed to kids. This study demonstrates that CFBAI pledges aren’t protecting children from web advertising of nutritionally poor foods. While the content of websites like Nick.com and CartoonNetwork.com are safe and engaging for children, over one-third of the food advertising that kids are seeing constantly on those sites are for foods that contain high levels of sugar, fat or sodium.
FoodFacts.com knows that any parent who has taken a child to a grocery store understands how much food advertising affects our kids. If it looked cool and fun on TV or on the internet, kids beg their parents to purchase the product. The point is that healthy foods can also be cool and fun and manufacturers can be more responsible about the products to which they are exposing our children. While we certainly understand that content is king for any website, when it comes to websites for children, adults need to consider more than the safety of the content their children are engaging with. When it comes to giving our children the healthiest start in life, ads count too. Let’s all practice viewing media choices for children through the lens of nutritional awareness!