Energy drinks can come in the form of beverages, shots and drops, and frequently contain much higher concentrations of caffeine than traditional soft drinks.
Researchers from Dartmouth College, NH, arrived at their findings after examining a database of television advertisements broadcast from March 2012 to February 2013. During this period, across 139 network and cable channels, over 608 hours of energy drinks advertisements were aired.
"Although our results do not support the idea that manufacturers intentionally target adolescents with their advertising, ads for energy drinks were primarily aired on channels with themes likely to appeal to adolescents, and adolescents are likely exposed to energy drink advertising via television," says lead researcher Jennifer A. Emond.
Energy drinks are beverages containing caffeine and commonly a mixture of other stimulants and energy-giving ingredients. Caffeine content can vary, with concentrations in popular brands ranging from 70 mg per 8 oz serving to 200 mg per 16 oz serving. These amounts are far higher than the average caffeine content of popular soft drinks, which range from 23 to 69 mg per 12 oz.
While the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) generally recognize energy drinks as safe, some experts are concerned about the potential health risks that adolescents can face due to high caffeine intake. Certain adverse health effects are associated with consuming too much caffeine, such as anxiety, sleep disruption and serious cardiovascular events.
At present, the American Academy of Pediatrics advise against energy drink consumption among adolescents, and the American Medical Association registered their support for a ban on the marketing of energy drinks to adolescents alongside the US Senate Commerce Committee in 2013.
Television is highly-watched by adolescents in the US, and the authors of the study describe it as a highly relevant medium for advertising to reach the youth of the nation. Until now, however, little quantitative research has been carried out to investigate the prevalence of energy drink promotion on US television.
Increased television exposure associated with heavier energy drinks consumption
The primary target audience of each of the television channels was identified through analyzing audience demographic data from a cable advertising trade group. The researchers identified the 10 television channels that dedicated the most time to energy drink advertising and of these, six included adolescents in their primary target audience.
The six channels were MTV2, ESPN News, FUSE, MTV, ESPN-2 and Black Entertainment Television. MTV2 was identified as the top network and was found by the researchers to have aired 2,959 minutes of energy drink advertisements - around 8.1% of all airtime given to energy drink advertisements.
The proportion of MTV'2 base audience made up of 12-17-year-olds was also found to be 398% greater than that of the average network audience for US television.
"While policies related to energy drink marketing are debated, nutrition educators may wish to include elements of media literacy when advising adolescents and their families about the risks of energy drink consumption," the authors suggest.
Although it cannot be proven that adolescents specifically viewed these advertisements, Nielsen data have previously indicated that adolescents view more energy drink advertisements than adults on many of the 10 channels identified in this study, including the top network MTV2.
While it can be argued that energy drink advertising appears so frequently on the channels mentioned because the products fit best with sports and risk-taking - popular themes on these channels - previous studies have suggested that energy drinks manufacturers specifically target an adolescent market by associating their products with these themes.
One step the authors suggest that parents can take to help reduce their children's exposure to energy drink marketing is to try and limit the amount of time they spend watching television.
"Measures of increased television exposure among adolescents (television viewing time, number of televisions in the home, and the presence of a television in the bedroom) have been associated with heavier consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, sports drinks, and energy drinks," state the authors.
In October last year, researchers from the World Health Organization (WHO) claimed that increasing consumption of energy drinks could pose a threat to public health.