New Twist in Obesity Debate: Kids Watch Less, Not More, Food Ads

FTC Study Says Number of Messages Seen Is Decreasing

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WASHINGTON ( -- The Federal Trade Commission today threw a curve into the debate surrounding children's obesity, saying the amount of TV ads children see for food is far lower than some recent estimates -- and actually is decreasing. But one group says those new numbers are misleading.
The results of the FTC's latest ad study will only muddle an already contentious debate between federal regulators, agency associations and watchdog groups.
The results of the FTC's latest ad study will only muddle an already contentious debate between federal regulators, agency associations and watchdog groups.

"Our data do not support the view that children are exposed to more television food advertising today," the agency staff said in a report that conflicts with statistics used by legislators and Federal Communication Commissions officials in calls for food-advertising curbs.

Numbers reflect ad-free nets
Today's study cited the amount of TV time children view ad-free content on public TV and on cable channels as one reason for the adjustment. In total, the study said that in 2004 children aged 2 to 11 saw 25,629 TV ads, which included 7,300 promotions for programming or public-service announcements. Without the PSAs or promos, kids saw 18,329 ads annually.

That number is significantly less than some recent reports. In March the Kaiser Family Foundation said 8- to 12-year-olds see 30,155 TV ads annually (the figure didn't include PSAs or promotional announcements). Other estimates have put the number far higher.

While the current FTC report said children see 17% more total messages than the last time it looked, in 1977, the roughly 18,300 paid ads they do see is down 7% from the prior study.

In the food area, the FTC said 2- to 11-year-olds viewed 5,538 food ads -- about 37% less than Kaiser's 7,600 food-ad estimate for 8- to 12-year-olds. The FTC said food ads comprise 21.6% of all the ads children see, but that the exposure is down 9% from 1977.

Kaiser: not a direct comparison
Victoria Rideout, VP, Kaiser Family Foundation, who headed the Kaiser study, said her research analyzed data from children in different age groups (2 to 7; 8 to 12; 13 to 17), which accounts for the discrepancy with the FTC's findings. She said that if her results were combined to reflect one large age group, the numbers would show a "remarkable similarity" to the FTC's.

Nonetheless, the FTC said its data does not support the view that children "are seeing more advertising for low-nutrition foods."

"While the foods advertised on children's programming in 2004 do not constitute a balanced diet, that was the case as well in 1977, before the rise in obesity," according to the study

Reaction to this study flopped the usual statements from ad associations and watchdog groups.

4A's: 'clear-eyed, objective look'
"We must believe that the FTC has taken a clear-eyed, objective look at the issue and come up with a set of compelling conclusions," said Adonis Hoffman, senior VP-counsel for the American Association of Advertising Agencies, which was most likely relieved to be on the positive side of obesity-related ad news this time. "What this means is that the link between marketing and obesity is likely to be more tenuous and complex than many contend."

Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, however, contended the FTC was examining data that was too old and also looking only at TV advertising. The agency has a separate study of online-ad exposure under way.
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