Trends in the Nutritional Content of Television Food Advertisements Seen by Children in the US was released last week

'Trends in the Nutritional Content of Television Food Advertisements Seen by Children in the US' was released last week

A study published last week shows that self-regulation in the US has brought about significant change regarding which food and drinks products are advertised directly to children, with soft drinks companies leading the way. But it also suggests there has been a far less marked change in the overall level of exposure children have to food and drink products high in sugar, fat or sodium. Ben Cooper reports.

As the debate in the US over the advertising of food and drink to children reaches a critical stage, research has been published which suggests self-regulation of advertising of food and drink to children has had mixed results.

The study, 'Trends in the Nutritional Content of Television Food Advertisements Seen by Children in the United States Analyses by Age, Food Categories, and Companies', was published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine last week. It examined exposure of children to food and drink advertising between 2003 and 2009.

It found that children’s exposure to advertising for food and beverage products high in saturated fat, sugar or sodium fell by 37.9% for 2- to 5-year-olds, and by 27.7% for 6- to 11-year-olds, between 2003 and 2009, though exposure to fast-food ads increased.

It also states that, in 2009, 86% of ads seen by children were for products high in saturated fat, sugar or sodium, down from 94% in 2003. The study concluded: “By 2009, there was not a substantial improvement in the nutritional content of food and beverage advertisements that continued to be advertised and viewed on television by US children.”

Under the terms of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), launched in 2006, companies have cut advertising for products which do not meet healthier product criteria during children’s programming. Critically, it was left to each company to define these criteria, but this has recently been changed with the CFBAI launching uniform guidelines.

This study, however, covers all advertising, including ads during children’s programmes and children’s exposure to advertising in programmes with a mixed audience.

So the research speaks to two issues of relevance in the ensuing debate over the possible introduction of government guidelines for food and drink advertising to children. Firstly, there is the efficacy of companies in reducing advertising of less healthy products during children’s programmes in favour of those which meet higher nutritional standards. Then, there is the matter of whether children’s exposure to ads for nutritionally inappropriate foods and drinks in mixed-audience programming needs to be reduced further.

Encouragingly, for our industry, soft drinks companies do not appear to be the main problem.

“The greatest improvement was among beverages,” lead researcher Dr Lisa Poole, of the Institute for Health Research and Policy and the University of Illinois, tells just-drinks. “The number of ads seen from Coke dropped almost 60% and for PepsiCo dropped 70%.”

According to the study, total exposure among children aged 2 to 5 to advertising for beverages high in saturated fat, sugar or sodium fell by 59.7% between 2003 and 2009, while for children aged 6 to 11 the fall was 57.2%. While decreases were observed in other product categories, such as cereals and snacks, they were not as significant - children’s exposure to fast-food advertising actually increased over the same period.

While the research bears out that the CFBAI members have reduced their advertising of nutritionally inappropriate food and drink during children’s programming, Poole suggests the prevailingly high figures of total exposure reflect that the nutritional criteria companies set themselves in 2006 were not strong enough. The study used standards employed by the National Academy of Sciences for foods sold in schools.

The review period of 2003 to 2009 takes in the first three years of the CFBAI but, as CFBAI director Elaine Kolish points out, does not reflect more recent changes to the programme. “We are pleased that the new study shows progress is being made,” Kolish says. “The study, however, fails to capture all the meaningful changes that have occurred under self-regulation.”

Kolish points to the introduction by the CFBAI last month of uniform nutritional criteria, which will come into effect from the end of 2013. 

Meanwhile, an earlier change addresses the other major concern raised by the research, namely children’s exposure to advertising during mixed programming. “In September 2010, CFBAI announced that we had substantially harmonised the definition of child-directed advertising,” says Kolish. “Now, no participant uses a threshold higher than 35% children 2-11 in the audience.”

This means that a programme with a child audience of below 35% is not subject to the CFBAI criteria, and can feature advertising of any food and drink products regardless of nutritional content.

Poole acknowledges that changes since 2009 may have a positive impact, and welcomes the introduction of uniform standards. “Several CFBAI companies improved their nutritional pledges between 2009 and 2011 and most recently the CFBAI has announced a new set of common standards,” says Poole. “We would expect these new standards to have a positive effect either through reformulation or a change in product mix being advertised.”

However, she adds: “Another key issue is the reach of advertising. Even with stronger standards, if ads reach [kids] through shows that are very popular with children but are just below the threshold of the percentage of child audience to which the guidelines apply, then they will not be effective in reducing exposure.”

While this voluntary threshold has come down over the years, Poole believes 35% is still too high. “If you’ve got a show where 20% is child audience [under 12] it could still mean that every child in the country is watching it,” she says.

As Congress awaits the final conclusions of the Interagency Working Group (IWG) commissioned to look into children’s food advertising, Poole believes the Government must consider pressing industry to make further concessions on the audience threshold at which it applies its criteria.

“There is no question that the CFBAI has made an improvement, that’s definite, there’s less food advertising and the nutritional quality has improved marginally, but there’s still a long way to go,” Poole says. “I think there’s definitely a lot of room for government to effectuate some change there.”

However, Kolish believes the emphasis should be on advertising that is aimed at children specifically. “Research that looks at ads kids might see rather than ads directed to children is mis-focused,” she says. “CFBAI’s focus is on ads designed to be appealing to kids, not ads directed to adults.”

The introduction of the CFBAI uniform guidelines has in the view of many increased the chances of the Government opting to delay the introduction of official guidelines and give industry more time to prove that self-regulation can be effective. 

However, this research underlines that the issue is not only about the nutritional criteria governing advertising directed at children, but also about children’s exposure to food and beverage advertising in general. The question exercising the minds of campaigners and industry advocates alike is the degree to which this will feature in the political debate once the IWG presents its findings to Congress.