A study published today in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine revealed that despite children watching fewer advertisements from food and beverage companies, most television ads viewed promote fast-food restaurants or unhealthy food high in saturated fat, sugar or sodium. It has been discovered that there has been a significant increase in TV ads from fast-food restaurants viewed by children.

The new study monitors airings of all food, beverage and restaurant TV advertisements viewed by children before and after the launch of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) in 2006. Companies associated to the CFBAI, a voluntary initiative, agreed to put a restriction on TV screenings for unhealthy food and beverages aimed at viewer audiences of children aged 11 years and younger. Researchers monitored ads by CFBAI member companies and non-members.

Between 2003 and 2009, children’s overall daily average TV airings for food, beverage and restaurant ads was reduced by 18 percent among children aged 2 to 5 and by 7 percent for children aged 6 to 11, however, in 2009 a staggering 86 % of all food and beverage ads still featured unhealthy products classed high in saturated fat, sugar or sodium.

In 2009, the percentage was even 2% higher (88%) from self-regulating companies, despite pledges from various industry leaders to reduce the limit of ads for unhealthy products aimed at children. Lead researcher Lisa M. Powell, Ph.D. of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Bridging the Gap, a national research program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) stated:

“Our findings show that industry self-regulation has had limited impact, particularly on the types of products companies continue to advertise. There was greater improvement in ads targeting kids ages 2 to 5, but more limited progress for ads seen by kid’s ages 6 to 11. And fast-food ads increased substantially – kids 11 and under are seeing more ads for fast food than any other type of food.”

Researchers have come to the conclusion that major changes are required to make industry self-regulation effective. They state that progress is hindered by the lack of common nutrition standards meeting the guidelines proposed by government agencies and by a low participation in the CFBAI, particularly by fast-food restaurants.

Authors demand a formal government intervention to address the issue should continued monitoring fail to show slight improvements. The trends in fast-food advertising are of most concern, according to Powell and her co-authors. The study revealed that from 2003 to 2009, TV Airings of fast-food ads increased by 21 percent for children aged 2 to 5 and by 31 percent for children aged 6 to 11, and although nearly half of the ads viewed by children were fast-food restaurant ads, only two participated in the CFBAI.

Powell stated:

“This study shows that fast food is still being heavily marketed to children, especially on TV. Fast-food restaurants have not been as quick as others to participate in self-regulation efforts, and the two companies that do participate are responsible for nearly half of the fast food ads children see.”

Research also reveals signs of progress; Airings of TV food and beverage ads (excluding fast-food restaurant ads) during the 2003 to 2009 study indicated a drop of 33 percent among children aged 2 to 5 and 22 percent for those aged 6 to 11.

Despite the fact that most ads continue to promote unhealthy products, the decline of airings for unhealthy food and beverages has dropped by 38 percent among children aged 2 to 5 and 28 percent for those aged 6 to 11.

The biggest improvement was a combined reduction of 68 % of regular soda ads for both age groups during the study period.

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A., RWJF president and CEO, stated:

“This study shows that far too many children are exposed to marketing of unhealthy products. We all have a responsibility to safeguard the health of our children. The science is clear about the impact of marketing on children, so we need companies to strengthen and adhere to marketing guidelines to reduce kids’ exposure to fast-food ads – not only on TV, but also through the Internet, social media sites and mobile applications.”

The study evaluated the total annual exposure to food advertising from television ratings data supplied by Nielsen Media Research during 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009.

Ratings were split into two age groups (2 to 5 and 6 to 11) and evaluated separately, taking into account the percentage of households with televisions viewing a program or advertisement over a specific period of time to determine advertisement exposure. The research evaluated changes in children’s overall exposure to food advertising based on TV ratings, but not only exposure based on programs targeted at children.

Written by Petra Rattue