Cookies, candy, sugary cereal, soda pop and fast food. All of these high-calorie, low-nutrition foods seem ubiquitous in television commercials.
But could these television advertisements be contributing to the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic?
Though the debate is ongoing, Inas Rashad, an assistant professor of economics at Georgia State University, says yes.
“We did find a correlation between television advertisingæ…æand childhood obesity,” Rashad says of a study she conducted with Shin-Yi Chou, professor of economics at Lehigh University, and Michael Grossman, a professor of business and economics at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
The group’s paper, “Fast-Food Restaurant Advertising on Television and Its Influence on
Childhood Obesity,” will be published in the November issue of the Journal of Law and Economics.
Childhood obesity has increased greatly in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention.
The percentage of children age 2 to 5 who were overweight increased to 13.9 percent in 2003-2004 from 5 percent in a 1976-1980 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
For those age 6 to 11 years the prevalence of being overweight increased to 18.8 percent from 6.5 percent, and for those age 12 to 19, the prevalence of obesity increased to 17.4 percent from 5 percent, according to the survey.
The research conducted by Rashad’s group found that children and adolescents view at least a half an hour of fast food ads per week.
Rashad says the group also looked at countries like Sweden, where there is a ban on fast food advertisements on television.
Childhood obesity has decreased in countries with a television advertising ban, according to the group’s research.
Rashad and her partners believe a similar ban on junk-foodadvertisements could reduce the
number of children who are overweight in the United States.
“Our results suggest that a ban on fast food restaurant advertisements on television would reduce the number of overweight children ages 3 toæ…æ11 by 18 percent,” says Grossman, the business and economics professor from City University of New York Graduate Center.
Similarly, a ban would reduce the number of overweight adolescents (between the ages of 12 and 18) by 14 percent, he says.
Rashad admits a ban on this type of advertising may seem extreme and would also reduce the amount of helpful health information included in some advertisements.
Anotheroption, she says, is eliminating the tax deductibility of food advertising on TV. That would help by reducing the number of ads children see and therefore reduce the percentage of children who are overweight and obese, she says.
Currently food advertising is an “ordinary business expense that reduces taxable corporate income,” Rashad’s paper says.
Eliminating the tax deductibility of food advertising would increase the price of advertising for the companies by about 54 percent, the paper says.
“The elimination of the tax deductibility of this type of advertising would produce smaller declines (in the percentage of children who are overweight) of between 5 and 7 percent,” Grossman says.
Rashad says food companies might find other ways to advertise to children if restrictions on television advertisements are put into place. That’s something Elizabeth Moore, associate professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame, understands well.
Moore recently compiled and edited four articles examining food marketing, childhood obesity and public policy for the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing and published by the American Marketing Association.
“The total amount of advertisements to children has increased over time, but if you look specifically at food advertising to children on the television it has declined over time,” Moore says.
This is because companies have found more ways to advertise to children through print, radio and online media, including a relatively new phenomenon – advergames.
“The Internet is so different in the nature of exposure to advertisements,” Moore says. “If you think of a 30 second ad on television, it’s there and then it’s gone. Children are going onto Web sites now that have food brands that are embedded in them. It’s a much more interactive experience. It’s the ability to reach children in a deeper way.”
While she hasn’t found a causal link between advertising and childhood obesity due to a lack of hard evidence between the two, advertising does affect children’s beliefs on brands and dietary choices, Moore says.
Even without a consensus among researchers that advertising affects the amount of children who are overweight, many food companies like the Kellogg Co., General Mills and the McDonald’s Corp. have begun self-regulating their advertisements to children by issuing public promises that they will not advertise nutritionally poor products to children on TV, Moore says.
Debra Desrochers, an assistant marketing professor at Notre Dame who has also studied television advertisements and their effect on kids, isn’t sure if these pledges will help reduce the amount of advertising children see.
“In today’s environment children are receiving messages through lots of different media,” Desrochers says. “These companies don’t make pledges across the different media, just TV.”
The pledges are a step in the right direction, though, Desrochers says.
“I think the food companies are doing things to reformulate. They’re putting whole grains in their food. They’re making the products healthier,” she says.
Childhood obesity cannot be blamed solely on television advertising, even if there is a direct link, Desrochers says. Other factors that can affect a child’s weight include genetics and the
amount of exercise children receive.
“There are so many factors that contribute to childhood obesity,” she says. “Families, schools, health care professionals – all these other entities have a role they can play as well, but I’m pleased to see food companies contributing to the solution.”