A new study suggests watching advertisements influences children’s food choices. Parental encouragement to choose healthier options also appears to have an effect, although when that goes against the message of commercials, parental influence is not as strong as the researchers expected.
The study, currently in press, is about to be published in The Journal of Pediatrics.
Lead author Dr Christopher Ferguson, an assistant professor in Behavioral, Applied Sciences and Criminal Justice at Texas A&M International and colleagues studied 75 children aged from 3 to 5 who were invited to choose one of two fast foods after watching advertisements for healthy and unhealthy options.
Ferguson said in a statement:
“Parental encouragement to eat healthy was somewhat able to help undo the message of commercials, although the effects of parents were smaller than we had anticipated.”
For the study, Ferguson and colleagues put the children into two groups. Both groups watched two cartoon films, one after the other, with a commercial in between. In one group the commercial was for French fries, in the other group it was for apple slices with dipping sauce.
After they watched the two films and the commercial, each child was offered a coupon: they could choose either a coupon for French fries, or a coupon for apple slices with dipping sauce (thus regardless of which commercial they had watched, they all had the same choice).
While they made their choice, the children were with their parents, half of whom had been asked to remain neutral while the other half were asked to encourage their children to choose the healthy option (the apple slices).
The results showed that:
- 71% of the children who watched the French fries advert and whose parents remained neutral opted for the French fries.
- However, of those who watched the French fries advert and whose parents advised them to take the healthier option, 55% still went for the French fries, a higher figure than the researchers anticipated.
- 46% of the children who watched the advert for apple slices and whose parents remained neutral opted for the French fries.
- 33% of the children who watched the advert for apple slices and whose parents encouraged them to go for the healthier option also opted for the French fries.
Ferguson said the results showed that:
“Children were clearly influenced by the commercials they saw; however, parents are not powerless.”
“Parents have an advantage if they are consistent with their long-term messages about healthy eating,” he added.
The researchers recommend that instead of banning advertisements to children, the focus should be on finding ways to promote healthier options, because, as Ferguson put it:
“Advertisement effects can work both for and against healthy eating.”
Written by Catharine Paddock PhD