Food On The Brain: How Advertising Can Influence Your Child’s Diet

When you consider that children today spend an average of 53 hours a week in front of a screen, it isn’t surprising that it is having an impact on kids’ health and wellness. You might imagine the kinds of activities that some kids are missing out on (running, jumping, playing, sprinting, and swimming to name a few) while they sit in front of the TV, computer, or play video games. This almost seems too obvious.

But there are other, less obvious impacts. It turns out that it is not just what kids aren’t doing, but what they are doing that negatively impacts their health. Or rather, what they are watching. A growing body of evidence tells us that exposure to food advertising is one of the powerful forces driving the relationship between screen time and obesity. More specifically, exposure to advertising may be altering children’s food intake.

Food advertising

Veggies and Fast Food in the Media: A Story of David vs. Goliath

Despite positive actions implemented by government, industry and schools aimed at improving the food and beverage environment between 2006 and 2012, U.S. children and adolescents are inundated with advertisements which promote unhealthy foods and beverages. It is estimated that US food and beverage companies spend roughly $2 billion each year to market their products to kids. In 2009, the largest proportion of advertising expenditures – roughly 40% of all money spent on food and beverage advertising – came from fast food restaurants, followed by carbonated beverages (22%). By comparison, advertising of fruits and vegetables (7.2 billion dollars in 2009) accounts for just 0.4% of all advertising dollars.

TV advertising remains the primary channel through which companies reach children and adolescents. In 2009, it is estimated that children ages 2-5 and 6-11 years old saw an average of 10.9 and 12.7 food-related TV ads daily with 86% of these foods and beverages classified as high in saturated fat, added sugars, or sodium. Exposure occurs even in prime-time television, particularly through product placement, which is not a target of the voluntary, industry-led efforts to improve food and beverage advertising to children.

Alternative forms of media, for example social media platforms and so called “sticky websites” are also growing in popularity among adolescents and companies routinely use 5 major digital marketing techniques designed to subvert rational decision-making. The overarching goal of this advertising is to establish brand- recognition, brand preference, and brand loyalty at an early age.

Links to poor eating

Greater attention is now being focused on the link between TV viewing and children’s dietary intake, particularly in light of the Institute of Medicine’s 2006 report which concluded that there was substantial evidence that “food and beverage marketing influences the preference and purchase requests of children…and may contribute to negative diet-related health outcomes and risks.”

Early research has demonstrated that children exposed to food advertising consumed more total food energy compared to exposure to non-food advertisements. Elementary-school aged children consumed 45% more snack foods after watching a short cartoon which contained a food advertisement compared to children who watched the same cartoon with advertisements for other, non-food, products.

This same pattern has been observed in meals immediately following exposure to food ads, as well as years later. Familiar cartoon characters used in on-air or front of package promotions have also been shown to influence cereal choice in young children. At least two different studies (here and here) have shown that children prefer the taste of food advertised by popular characters, with children as young as 3 years old able to correctly pair the character with its endorsed product.

It seems that the nag factor has some scientific basis.

Let priming work for you

Encouragingly, a recent study from the Netherlands suggests that the opposite is also true: advertisements and key product placement can also influence our preference for and consumption of healthier food items as well. In this study, grocery store customers were given a flyer which either contained a health priming messages or did not. Analyses of store receipts showed that overweight and obese individuals purchased nearly 75% fewer snack food items when primed. Even more interesting was the finding that although priming only worked when people reported that they paid initial attention to the flyer, no conscious awareness of the prime during grocery shopping was necessary to observe these effects. These findings were limited to overweight consumers.

So what’s happening in there? Priming is a memory effect in which exposure to a stimulus, say a commercial for a sugary drink, influences a person’s response to a later stimulus, such as seeing that sugary drink in the vending machine. That commercial provided subtle external cues (in the form of pictures that evoked a certain feeling) that affected the viewer’s subsequent thoughts and actions. The effects of priming can be very strong and long lasting. Dieters who were primed subliminally with their weight control goal paid reduced attention to healthful food cues compared with dieters who had not been primed. Similarly, diet cues in a TV commercials reduced snack consumption among dieters, and exposing dieters to the cover of a health and diet magazine led to healthier food choices.

The key may be in our mental skills, or executive functioning. A recent article examining the brain’s response to food and non-food logos in obese and non-obese children found that obese children had differential, and lower, activation in the region of the brain responsible for cognitive control, suggesting that certain individuals may be more vulnerable to the influence of food advertising.

So what can you do?

  • Talk about it. Watch commercials with your (older) children, and talk about what the advertisement is for, what emotions it creates, and why the company decided to make that particular kind of ad, or evoke that emotion. Giving your kids the tools to think critically about what they are watching will have long-lasting benefits to their health, self-discipline and self-esteem.
  • Limit or remove. While it’s not always possible with older children, commercial TV can be avoided or significantly limited for younger children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under 2 years old and fewer than 2 hours each day for children and teens. Consider streaming shows online that have fewer commercial breaks.
  • Cook with your kids. The number of ads for “unhealthy” foods far outweighs those for healthy ones, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. Cooking will bring these foods into kids’ consciousness.
  • Pay attention to your body. While eating different foods encourage kids to focus on, and talk about, how their body feels. Giving them the vocabulary to identify feelings, and helping them make the link between what they eat and how they feel, might make them more resilient to effects of advertising: they won’t want many of those unhealthy foods in the first place!
  • Lights. Camera. Action. Have kids make a commercial for a food (or any other product) that they don’t see advertised. Artichokes, eggplant, heirloom tomatoes, apples, kiwi fruit…should I go on? Help them research the food or product and think about the methods that other advertisements use to sell their products. Let them use a video camera to film their production!

Kiyah Duffey, Ph.D.

Kiyah Duffey received her degree in Nutritional Epidemiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is now an assistant professor in the department of Human Nutrition, Foods & Exercise at Virginia Tech. She is also a freelance nutrition consultant, blogger, and mother to three children (ages 4 and under). In her day job, Kiyah’s research aims to understand the association between diet, obesity and heart disease. She is the author of almost two dozen scientific articles on these topics, and her work has been featured in Men’s Health Magazine, USA Today, and the BBC News and on NPR’s Morning Edition, Good Morning America, and the NBC Nightly News. But her true passion is food: reading and writing about it, shopping for it, talking about it, cooking it and sharing it with others. Someday she’ll figure out how to marry her passion and expertise more fully; in the meantime you can follow her efforts to do so at www.ourregularlyscheduledprogram.com where she blogs about family, parenting, career, and the search for a healthy, balanced life. Or connect with her via facebook or Twitter.