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Food industry continues to market unhealthy food to kids

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Alex McIntyre | The Daily Wildcat

Christine Filer, a UA graduate student, poses for a photo in the Communications building on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015. Filer was one of the authors on a recent study that showed that the food industy has not kept their promise to advertise more healthy food to children.

Children might be tempted to eat more unhealthy foods if their eyes are glued to the television, according to a new UA study.

Dale Kunkel, a UA emeritus professor of communication, published a study in August that tracked children’s food advertisements by the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.

The CFBAI is a self-regulatory program created with the intention of limiting unhealthy food advertisements aimed toward children. The initiative is composed of 17 of the U.S.’s largest food companies, including Kellogg Company, PepsiCo Inc. and ConAgra Foods Inc., according to Kunkel’s study.

The experiment tracked the proportion of healthy and unhealthy food advertisements put out by companies in the CFBAI from 2007 to 2013.

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“Researchers started to look at what’s causing the problem and how can we try to correct it,” Kunkel said. “That’s when we look at the food advertising to kids.”

The proportion of unhealthy food ads put out by these companies went from 79.4 percent in 2007 to 80.5 percent in 2013, Kunkel said. Although the CFBAI pledged to only advertise healthier foods to children, the study showed that the program was not meeting this standard.

“There is virtually no change in the proportion of food ads that are for junk food products,” Kunkel said. “What that demonstrates is the industry is not making good on their promise.”

Christine Filer, a graduate teaching associate at UA, was also involved in the study. “I think the more shocking thing to me isn’t an individual ad, it’s more just the volume,” said Filer, adding that self-regulation in the U.S. is not as stringent as it could be.

“You see so many ads for Chuck E. Cheese’s and McDonald’s and these sorts of things that are not the most nutritious foods,” Filer said. “But then you don’t see ads for the really healthy food.”

Matthew Lapierre, an assistant professor of communication at UA and a colleague of Kunkel, published a similar study in 2011 that looked at how children judged cereal based on the use of licensed cartoon characters, or spokescharacters, on the cereal boxes.

Lapierre’s study concluded that children are more likely to say the cereal with spokescharacters tastes better compared to cereals without spokescharacters. “And it’s not a leap to say that maybe they’re going to be eating more,” Lapierre said. 

The study also demonstrated that cereals with more child cues, such as spokescharacters and colorful, bold lettering; and more nutrition cues, such as pictures of fruit, are often of poorer nutritional quality, according to Lapierre. ­

These cereals have more sugar, and less fiber and protein, Lapierre said.

The use of licensed characters in children’s advertising is correlated with an increase in sales for a given product. One example that Kunkel gave is Kraft Foods Group Inc., who recently put the character SpongeBob SquarePants on their boxes of mac and cheese, a food that is considered to have poor nutritional value. “When they did that,” Kunkel said. “The sales jumped dramatically.”

The advertising industry is constantly changing. “There’s been a lot of change in the media environment in recent years,” Kunkel said of new online advertisements that advertise food products to kids via online games.

“Advergames” are a potential new way for food companies to market directly to children through a different medium: the Internet.

The qualifications for food advertising in the U.S. differ from those of other countries. “In the Netherlands … the government has a bit more oversight into what advertisers can and cannot do.”

Other countries, like England, have governmental restrictions on food advertising. “England adopted a law where you cannot advertise junk foods during children’s programming hours,” Kunkel said. The food industry in the U.S., however, adopted a self-regulatory advertising program.

The CFBAI is not restricted by government standards, unlike the advertising industries in other countries.

When it comes to the advertisement industry and the health of children, Filer said, “There is definitely room for improvement.”


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