TV Feeds Kids Fewer Food Ads, FTC Staff Study Finds

By Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 15, 2005

Children see significantly fewer television ads promoting food products today than they did 28 years ago, according to a new study by the staff of the Federal Trade Commission.

Today, children watch about 13 food advertisements a day on television, down from more than 18 in 1977, the agency staff said. The staff study did not address how many other food ads kids see through other kinds of promotions, including online gaming, package promotions and in-school marketing.

The new study was released yesterday at the start of a two-day government workshop, sponsored by the FTC and the Department of Health and Human Services, to explore the effect of kids' marketing on obesity and the food advertising industry's efforts to self-regulate advertisements. The incidence of childhood obesity has more than doubled since 1970.

The FTC staff findings were immediately cited by advertising industry officials and its critics to bolster their arguments over regulating food ads, further entrenching the already sharp division between the two sides.

The decline in TV ads was proof that food marketers are not to blame for the steep rise in childhood obesity, said Wally Snyder, president of the American Advertising Federation, which represents manufacturers and advertising agencies. "Advertising is not the culprit, but lack of exercise and moderation in the diet are," Snyder said.

Advertising critics, such as Susan Linn, a Harvard psychologist who is also founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, attributed the drop to the fact that advertisers are promoting their products in many other ways, including packaging and on the Internet in online games. She added that the drop in TV ads also did not reflect the increasing use of popular characters such as SpongeBob SquarePants in food for kids, such as sugary cereal and fruit snacks. As a result, she said, the "SpongeBob SquarePants" show "becomes a whole commercial for tons and tons and tons of junk food."

SpongeBob will soon also appear on bags of spinach and carrots.

In opening the workshop, FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras said it would be unwise and not viable for the agency to ban children's food advertising. However, she warned, it would also be "unwise for industry to maintain the status quo. Not only is downplaying the concerns of consumers bad business, but if industry fails to demonstrate a good-faith commitment to this issue and take positive steps, others may step in and act in its stead."

Majoras called on the industry to improve the nutritional content of the food it sells -- a move many companies said they are already making.

William Dietz, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's division of nutrition and physical activity, said there is a direct link between the amount of TV children watch and their likelihood of being overweight. He said reducing the amount of TV viewing could be a more effective way to combat obesity in kids than increasing physical activity.

The FTC staff study, conducted by the Bureau of Economics, used academic studies and Nielsen data reflecting what shows kids watch.

While food ads may be decreasing, the study showed a sharp increase in the number of TV ads promoting other television shows. Similarly, it said that kids see far fewer ads for cereal, candy and toys -- the main items that were promoted in 1977 -- but more ads for restaurants and fast-food chains, movies, video games and DVDs, and for other kinds of food such as yogurt.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company