Don't blame ads: Kids view fewer food commercials

By Published on .

Kids today watch less broadcast TV in favor of cable, video games and the Internet, according to two studies unveiled last week; one from the Federal Trade Commission, and the other from the Association of National Advertisers and the Grocery Manufacturers of America. The ANA and GMA are using their study to rebut criticism that fast-food and package-food TV ads increase incidents of childhood obesity.

The ANA and GMA study compares Nielsen Media Research data over the last 10 years. A key finding of the study is that kids today are seeing fewer food and fast-food ads then they did a decade ago. In 1994, kids under 12 saw an average of 5,909 broadcast and cable TV ads for food or fast food, while in 2003, they viewed 5,038. The study also found, using Nielsen data, that over the last decade, actual spending on TV food ads has decreased, from $5.92 billion in 1994 to $4.98 billion in 2003. (Both figures were adjusted to reflect 1993 dollar values to show a true comparison.)

A Call for Limits

The studies were unveiled last week at a forum of the Cato Institute. Industry critic Dale Kunkel, a University of California, Santa Barbara, communications professor, called for limits on ads aimed at kids. Mr. Kunkel was one of the authors of an American Psychological Association report that recommended advertising be banned to children under the age of 8.

The second study, from Todd J. Zywicki, director of the Federal Trade Commission's Office of Policy Planning, and a law professor at George Mason University in Virginia, looked at teens.

Mr. Zywicki cited research showing that the percentage of eighth, 10th and 12th graders who watch four or more hours of TV a day on weekdays has been dropping since 1991. The data come from the government's Monitoring the Future study done by the University of Michigan as tracked by Child Trends Databank.

"Kids today are playing more video games, watching more videos. They may have more screen time, but they see less ads," he said.

Mr. Zywicki said his research showed that the increase in video-game playing and video viewership, when taken into account with kids watching more cable, meant kids saw fewer ads. Cable carries fewer package-goods ads, and fewer food ads. Seventy-two percent of broadcast TV spots were for food, compared to 36% of cable spots, he said. He believes there is no support for contentions that food or fast-food marketers are increasing advertising to kids.

He also questioned the correlation between ads and children's obesity, saying U.S. regions that get similar levels of food and fast-food ads have widely different levels of child obesity, and various foreign countries that do have children's ad restrictions in place have shown increases in children's obesity.

"It seems to me that the case for increased ad exposure is pretty weak," he said.

Dan Jaffe, ANA's exec VP, suggested his group's study showed that there was no need for additional restrictions on ads and warned that eliminating ads from kids programs would make the programs impossible to produce.

Mr. Kunkel last week disputed both studies. While kids are watching less TV, the decrease is only 15 minutes a day. And while kids may be seeing less commercial time, more spots air as 15-second or 10-second spots, compared to all 30-second ads. Because advertisers have honed the success of their shorter ads, the result is kids are more aggressively targeted, he said.

Mr. Jaffe and a lawyer who oversaw the ANA/GMA study said their numbers reflected the overall number of commercials, not the commercials' length.

Fast Facts

WHO: The Association of National Advertisers and the Grocery Manufacturers of America backed a study on kids under 12 years old. The Federal Trade Commission presented the second study on teen viewing.

WHAT: Two studies on kids' TV viewing. One found that kids under 12 see fewer food and fast food ads today then a decade ago. A second found teen TV viewing is down.

WHY: Kids and teens today spend more time on the Internet, playing video games and watching videos and DVDs. They also watch more cable, which carries fewer ads than broadcast.

Most Popular
In this article: