Preschoolers Still See TV Food Ads Despite Companies’ Promises

A group of preschoolers watch television. (Shutterstock Photo)
Because of a loophole in the companies’ pledges, children under 6 are still exposed to TV food ads, at an age when they are particularly vulnerable to advertising. (Shutterstock Photo)

Preschool children ages 2 to through 5 continue to view TV ads for foods and beverages daily, revealing a loophole in major food companies’ pledges that they will not direct any advertising to children under 6, according to a new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

At a minimum, food companies should not advertise during programming where children under age 6 are likely to see their ads, regardless of whether older children are also watching. — Jennifer Harris

The study, published in the journal Appetite, also showed that, although companies say they are directing their ads toward older children, the advertisements appeal to children under 6 as much as they appeal to those aged 6 to 11. In addition, preschoolers were less likely to have tried the advertised products before seeing the ads, and this – as research has shown – makes them more susceptible to the influence of these ads.

“Our new research findings demonstrate that preschool-age children frequently view TV food ads and are likely highly influenced by ads that food and beverage companies have pledged to protect them from,” says the study’s lead author, Jennifer Harris, associate professor of allied health sciences in the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources, and director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center.

Child development experts have concluded that advertising to children under 6 is unfair, as they do not have the cognitive ability to distinguish advertising from other types of information and thus cannot counteract its influence. As a result, they recommend that preschool-age children should be protected from advertising in any form.

In response to these concerns, major food companies participating in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) industry self-regulation program, implemented in 2006, have pledged not to direct advertising for any of their products to children under 6. However, young children still see ads from these companies because most also watch commercial children’s TV programs that are also popular with older children, such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, where food companies frequently place their ads.

The new research findings included two studies that assessed the amount and potential impact of food-related TV advertising exposure on preschool-aged children. The first study used Nielsen advertising data to compare preschoolers’ (2-5 years) and older children’s (6-11 years) exposure to TV food advertising in 2015. In the second study, 49 young children in a child-care setting viewed food ads that commonly appeared on children’s TV programming. Researchers measured their attitude about these child-directed ads and advertised products, and compared responses by 4- to 5-year-olds and 6- to 7-year-olds.

Key findings include:

Study: Amount of TV Food Ads

  • In 2015, preschoolers viewed on average 1.6 ads per day on children’s TV programming that were placed by CFBAI-participating companies, even though companies complied with their stated pledges not to direct advertising to young children, which they define specifically as programs where children under 6 make up 35 percent or more of the audience.
  • Thirty-two different food-related companies placed ads on children’s programming, and nine CFBAI-participating companies were responsible for 63 percent of the ads viewed by preschoolers and 69 percent of ads viewed by older children.

Study: Potential Impact of Exposure to TV Food Ads

  • In the second study, the majority of the children in both age groups (4 to 5 and 6 to 7) responded positively to the child-directed ads, indicating that they were fun and cool, and the commercials made them feel happy. When asked who would like these ads most, 42 percent of children ages 6 to 11 thought someone younger than them would like them the most.
  • For both age groups, positive attitudes about the ad predicted whether children thought they would like the advertised product. However, for younger, but not older children, liking the ad increased the probability that they thought they would like the product if they had not tried it before. This finding supports previous research that has shown that enjoyable advertising is more effective when it reaches children before they try the product for the first time.

“Food companies and media companies airing children’s programming should do more to protect young children from advertising that takes advantage of their vulnerabilities,” Harris said. “At a minimum, food companies should not advertise during programming where children under age 6 are likely to see their ads, regardless of whether older children are also watching. Media companies that broadcast children’s TV programming could also take action, such as the Walt Disney Company’s initiative to establish nutrition standards for food advertising to children on its networks.”

The study was co-authored by Svetlana Kalnova of the Rudd Center.

Support for this research was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.