Junk Food Ads and Childhood Obesity

Filed under: Media, Expert Advice: Tweens, Expert Advice: Teens

childhood obesity

Kids are bombarded by advertising for junk food and fast food everywhere they turn. Credit: Corbis

Even when marketed as "now with real juice!" or "contains 10 essential vitamins," a sugary soda with 300 calories just isn't good for you. Some junk food advertising is really misleading. But you don't need to be a nutritionist to know that too much of these foods is bad for your kids.

What is junk food advertising?

Kids are bombarded by advertising for junk food and fast food everywhere they turn. In fact, kids see one food commercial every five minutes during Saturday morning cartoons. Most of these foods are high in fat, sugar, salt, and calories. Fast-food chains appeal to kids with tie-ins to movies, giving toys or prizes to kids who buy certain meals.

As kids age, they are subjected to promotional campaigns with offers for free music downloads, cell phone ring tones, and games sponsored by the food and beverage industry. The beverage industry alone spends more than $3 billion marketing directly to kids. Advertisers sneak junk food -- called "product placement" -- into hundreds of TV shows, movies, and online games. They even find their way into our schools by way of score boards, special events, fundraising and textbook sponsorship.

The facts

  • Kids who watch more TV than their peers during middle and high school years have less healthy diets five years later (University of Minnesota, 2009).
  • Children ages 7 to 11 who watched a half-hour cartoon that included food commercials ate 45 percent more snack food while watching the show than children who watched the same cartoon with non-food commercials (Yale University, 2009).
  • In 2005, half of ads during Saturday morning cartoons were for snacks or restaurants, and more than 90 percent of those ads promoted unhealthy food (Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2008).
  • Tighter regulation since 2005 has led to a decrease in junk food ads overall, but ads for fast food restaurants have increased (Nielsen, 2010).
Why it matters

Research, including a 2010 study from UCLA, finds a strong connection between ads and eating habits. One out of every three kids in this country is at risk for becoming obese. American kids consume more than one-third of their daily calories from soft drinks, sweets, salty snacks, and fast food. As kids associate pleasure with junk food, they develop lifelong, unhealthy habits that are difficult to break.

Tips for parents of all kids

  • Keep them away from advertising as much as possible. Let them watch commercial-free TV or sign up for a DVR service that will let you skip through ads.
  • Take the TV out of your kid's bedroom. There's a correlation between a children's weight and TV in their bedrooms.
  • Teach kids under 7 the difference between a TV program and a commercial. Point out commercials and use a timer to show them when commercials begin and end.
Tips for parents of elementary school kids

  • Talk about health, not appearance. Help your kids have a balanced approach to food, emphasizing healthy food choices based on nutrition, not diet.
  • Help kids identify junk food advertising messages in product placement, website games, and guerilla marketing. Watch TV or play a video or online game with your child and find the products and logos used as props or part of the storyline. Have a conversation about how the messages try to get kids to buy a product.
  • Start a conversation. Ask your children what they know about who created the ad and what words, images, or sounds were used to attract their attention. How did they feel after seeing the ad?
  • Watch what websites they visit. Some of the most popular websites for kids, such as Millsberry, are actually giant ads.
  • Explain "tricks" that advertisers use in commercials, such as using Vaseline to make hamburgers look juicy.
Tips for parents of middle and high school kids

  • Talk about "super sizing." Your kids need to know that a 32-ounce soda isn't a "good deal." It's a cheap way to add more sugar and empty calories.
  • Agree on fast-food rules for lunch. As in, as little fast-food as possible. Point out why schools around the country have banned sodas and junk food.
  • Take time to have dinner together. We are still the role models for our kids. If we feed them right and set an example for good eating, chances are they will follow it.
  • Talk about peer pressure. Many ads will count on the fact that kids are especially sensitive to peer pressure to be "cool." Remind your kids that advertisers are counting on this vulnerability to sell things.
  • Take the TV out of your kid's bedroom. There's a correlation between a children's weight and TV in their bedrooms.

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Get more information for parents on media and technology by checking out Common Sense Media.


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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.