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STUDY LINKS CHILDHOOD OBESITY AND ADVERTISING

Kaiser Foundation Findings Debated at Washington Forum

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- America's epidemic of childhood obesity is directly related to the advertisements children are exposed to, claims a new report issued by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
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audio bug The 12-page Kaiser report.

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"Much of the media targeted to children is laden with elaborate advertising campaigns, many of which promote foods such as candy, soda and snacks," said the report, issued by the private, nonprofit research group at a forum here. The project was a synthesis of the findings of 40 studies exploring the influence of media on the food consumption patterns of children.

Media targets
The report said children spend 5.5 hours using media each day, thereby limiting the time spent playing outside; at the same time they are confronted with an "explosion" of media targeted to them, most of which carries marketers' messages. The report said children are exposed to 40,000 ads a year on TV alone.

Victoria Rideout, vice president and director of Kaiser's program for the study of entertainment media and health, said the findings raises questions about whether children should see less TV, whether the amount of ads targeted to children should be cut, or whether there was a need for a more extensive media campaign promoting nutritional information.

Disagreement
Elizabeth Vandewater, an assistant professor at the University of Texas in Austin, disagreed. She told the forum that researchers have pretty much dismissed the idea that weight gains in children are related to TV watching. She said research shows children who don't watch TV don't necessarily go outside to exercise any more than their TV-watching peers.

She suggested researches need to be more realistic. "Simply telling parents to turn off television is not that helpful," she said.

Marva Smalls, executive vice president of Nickelodeon, and Bill MacLeod, a lawyer representing the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said media executives and marketers are taking a number of steps to improve the products and information children are getting.

SpongeBob
Ms. Smalls said Nickelodeon -- which is home to many popular cartoon shows, such as SpongeBob Squarepants -- is airing more messages about nutrition and is working with its sponsors and the licensees of its characters to ensure that food products include healthier choices.

Mr. MacLeod said food companies are "working overtime" to come up with more healthy foods for children.

Dr. Thomas Robinson, a pediatrician and an assistant professor at Stanford University, said a recent study in San Jose schools had determined that students who reduced their TV watching gained less weight then other students who watched more TV over a school year. Dr. Robinson said a larger test he is now conducting appears to be confirming the results.

"I don't think we need to blame TV to go about trying to change things," he said, adding that he is already telling parents of his patients to remove TVs from their children's rooms.

Soft drinks and snacks
The foundation also pointed out that there are many causes besides media that have contributed to the rise of childhood obesity, including the reduction of physical education classes and the availability of high-calorie snacks and soft drinks in schools, not to mention the proliferation of fast-food restaurants that "super-size" their offerings -- a problem not limited only to children's waistlines.

While the report from Kaiser took pains to show that past research looking into the correlation between media exposure and obesity has resulted in mixed findings, its overall conclusion is that media is an "important piece of the puzzle." The foundation feels that curbs on advertising to children would "maximize the positive role model media can play in addressing the problem."

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