Anyone who watches TV has seen them: advertisements featuring a stack of thick, moist burgers dripping with cheese, or chips that people just can’t stop munching on. For adults, the foods in these ads can seem simply irresistible, and invite serious cravings. But as a new study confirms, the effect of similar ads on children may be no different — even if advertisements target children in slightly different ways.
Published in the journal Obesity Reviews, the study examined 29 previously published trials in which over 6,000 children (ages 2 to 18) participated. Each of these trials looked at the effects of the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages. In the 17 trials that looked at what foods and beverages children chose to eat after viewing these ads (in the context of these studies, they often didn’t get to actually eat or drink their chosen items), children were about 10% more likely to choose unhealthy items within 30 minutes of viewing junk food ads.
Another nine trials included in the study looked not at what children preferred to eat, but at what they actually ate after viewing junk food ads. The researchers found that within 30 minutes of watching these ads, children consumed, on average, about 30 more calories than if they hadn’t been watching them.
As noted in a CBC (Canada) article on the study, obesity in children is a major problem in both Canada and the United States, and children are exposed to an average of five food ads per hour — throughout their lives, not just while watching TV. Furthermore, research has found that in the United States, Canada, and Germany, unhealthy foods are the subject of over 80% of TV food ads.
The CBC article goes on to note that efforts in schools have found that marketing healthy foods can also have a large — and, in this case, positive — effect on children’s habits and choices. A study of elementary school students in New York State found that showing them animated characters called the Super Sproutz — consisting of Miki Mushroom, Zach Zucchini, and Suzie Sweet Pea, among others — led, in some cases, to triple the number of students choosing items from their lunchroom salad bar. But given the sheer number of ads for junk foods that children see, it’s unclear whether efforts like these could have a widespread, lasting effect on most kids’ eating habits.
What’s your take on junk food ads and their effects — have you seen children influenced by them? Have you personally experienced cravings after watching food ads on TV? Do you think these cravings affect your behavior, either immediately after watching the ad or in a longer span of time? Do you think parents — or governments, through advertising regulations — should limit junk food ads during children’s TV programming, or are voluntary industry guidelines enough? What about during adult programming? Have you taken any steps to avoid seeing junk food ads? Leave a comment below!