Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 30 Number 1
Fall 2007

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Walter Gantz
Walter Gantz
Photo © Tyagan Miller

cap'n crunch

Forced Feeding

by Lauren J. Bryant

If you're a parent, you've been there. You're grocery shopping with kids in tow, when you round the corner of a towering display. Suddenly, you're in the cookie aisle. The pleading begins.

"Mommy, I want the chocolate-covered peanut butter cookies. Please!" says your 6-year-old.

"Nooooooo," whines the 8-year-old. "I want the chocolate sandwich ones covered in white fudge! Please, Mom, please."

"No way," says your 10-year-old. "We're getting the chunky chocolate chip ones. That commercial with the singing cookies in the convertible is awesome!"

The cracker and cereal aisles are hardly different (who knew there was cereal in the form of a fat chocolate straw?), and you end up leaving the store with a small pile of foods you know your children should rarely eat.


Walter Gantz understands. The chair of Indiana University Bloomington's Department of Telecommunications and a 30-year veteran of media research, Gantz is lead author of the recently released Food for Thought: Television Food Advertising to Children in the United States. The report was funded by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and published in March 2007. (Gantz's co-authors were Nancy Schwartz and James Angelini, also of IUB's Department of Telecommunications, and Victoria Rideout, a Kaiser Foundation vice president and program director.)

There are lots of media studies of food advertising, but two things make the Kaiser report stand out, according to Gantz: first, it's one of the largest content analyses ever conducted of television advertising to children. The report was based on an unusually large sample of more than 1,600 hours of programming taken from 13 frequently watched networks (e.g., ABC Family, Nickelodeon, and Disney). Second, after systematically coding the food advertising content found on those 13 networks, Gantz and his team combined that data with information on children's actual viewing patterns. The viewing pattern data contained detailed information on how much time children in each age group spend watching which kinds of programming: cable channels, broadcast channels, regular programs, children's shows, etc.

"We were able to weight the data on food ads by the proportion of time kids spent viewing the programming in which the ads appeared," Gantz explains. "That's what sets this study apart from others. Our report is based on the amount and nature of advertising content that kids actually see."

And what do they see?

  • Children ages 2 to 7 see an average of 12 food ads, or 4.5 minutes of food advertising, on TV per day.
  • "Tweens" ages 8 to 12 see an average of 21 food ads, or about 8.2 minutes, every day.
  • Teenagers between 13 and 17 see 17 food ads, an average of 6.4 minutes of food ads per day.

Eight minutes? What's the big deal? Gantz admits it's not a lot of time on a daily basis. "But we all know kids don't watch just one day of programming here and there," he says. "Most of them watch TV every day, year-round. So over the course of a year, the numbers become very large. A 2- to 7-year-old is going to see more than 4,400 ads about food. That's a lot."

And it's not even close to the number of food ads that older children see. Teenagers see an average of 6,100 TV ads for food annually, and "tweens," who are transitioning away from watching channels with few ads such as PBS, see a striking 7,600 TV ads for food every year.

"That's an enormous number," says Gantz. "Kids in the older age groups have more independence, more money of their own, and more influence on their parents' purchasing decisions. So 7,600 food ads every year may have an impact."

Just Say ‘Whoa'

The number of TV food ads isn't the only cause for concern--there is also the types of food those thousands of ads are pushing. The vast majority of food ads for kids sell candy and snacks (e.g., chips, gum, and cookies), cereal (usually high-sugar), and fast food (we're not talking McSalads). In the Kaiser study, ads for dairy products such as milk, cheese, or yogurt made up only 4 percent of the advertising targeted to children and teens. And Gantz and his co-researchers did not encounter a single ad for fruit, vegetables, meats, or grains that was designed to appeal primarily to children or teens.

"It's not that a kid should never eat a fast-food burger and fries," says Gantz, "but the diet we see in TV ads is really laden with ‘whoa' foods, meaning foods that are high in fat, added sugar, and calories."

Health doesn't sell, according to Gantz's data. When he looked at the primary appeals used in food advertising to children and teens, he found that "not surprisingly, the most common appeals are taste (like ‘cinnamony') and fun." Only 2 percent of food ads aimed at kids relied on claims citing health or nutrition. Broccoli just isn't fun.

Still, advertisements don't make children fat. They're only commercials, not the food itself. "You can't make a causal linkage between content analysis and the effect of the content," Gantz says. "That's not what we did. We just said, ‘Here is a count. There is a massive amount of food advertising on. These are the appeals. This is what kids are exposed to. Are we comfortable with that?'"

Gantz--who has taught advertising for much of his 28 years as a professor at IU Bloomington--believes TV advertisements are an enabling factor. "If ads didn't work," he says, "manufacturers would not be pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into them."

Pitted against such massive investment, messages to kids about good nutrition don't stand much of a chance. Public service announcements (PSAs) created by organizations and agencies such as the Ad Council or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services promote nutritional foods and healthy, active living. But when Gantz examined PSAs for the Kaiser study, he found that while children were exposed to some PSAs about healthy living and eating well, the number of PSAs they saw was tiny. Compared to the thousands of food ads children of all ages see every year, they see at most about 160 PSAs on fitness or nutrition each year. Children in the "tweens" ages of 8 to 12, for example, see an average of one PSA on fitness or nutrition every two to three days.

"That really struck us," says Gantz. "There is an avalanche of food ads and no real countervailing force."

Selling Change

When the Kaiser Family Foundation released the Food for Thought study at a large press conference in March 2007, representatives of the food and beverage advertising industry also took part. Executives from the Association of National Advertisers and the National Advertising Review Council praised the report's detailed information but called the data out-of-date (it was collected in 2005) and pointed to advertising industry changes.

In late 2006, the National Advertising Review Council (a consortium of U.S. advertising organizations) and its affiliated Children's Advertising Review Unit launched the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a voluntary self-regulation program. Heavy-hitting food and beverage corporations signed on as charter participants, including Coca-Cola Co., General Mills Inc., The Hershey Co., McDonald's, and Pepsico.

According to initiative guidelines, the companies agreed to change the mix of their TV, radio, and print advertising aimed at children under 12 to include at least 50 percent of ads promoting healthier dietary choices. They also agreed to refrain from product placement and sales of foods in elementary schools. Each participating company committed to developing a program that complied with the guidelines and get it up and running in 2007.

Gantz points out that manufacturers have two very good incentives to make changes. One incentive is public opinion (which affects sales). In the face of increasing concern over childhood obesity, the American public is looking to manufacturers to "do the right thing." The second incentive is the specter of government regulation. In opening remarks at the news conference launching the report, U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R.-Kans.) mentioned the option of a "heavy regulatory regime" if voluntary self-regulation on the part of advertisers and manufactures did not pan out. "And that's a real threat," says Gantz.

Real enough that in mid-July of 2007, food and beverage companies announced significant reforms just before a forum called "Weighing In: A Check-Up on Marketing, Self-Regulation, and Childhood Obesity" was convened by the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising. Kellogg's, for example, announced that it would stop advertising its products to children under 12 unless the foods meet specific nutrition guidelines for calories, sugar, fat, and sodium.

Pepsico, the multibillion-dollar company that includes the Frito-Lay, Tropicana, Quaker Oats, and Gatorade brands, has been a "leader in moving in the right direction," says Gantz. PepsiCo's health and wellness program includes the Smart Spot symbol--that's the green circle touting "Smart Choices Made Easy" on Pepsico products that meet nutritional criteria, such as lower sugar content and the elimination of trans fats.

But Gantz isn't convinced these changes are showing up on TV. (For one thing, a company could stop their TV ads during children's programs, but as Gantz and others have shown, many children watch a lot of non-children's programming, so they may still see the ads.) Gantz is already collecting 2007 data on TV ads aimed at children to see what impact the food and beverage advertising initiatives have had.

"I don't expect dramatic change," he says. "It will take time, but I'm going to take data now, and then I hope to go back again in 2009 when there will have been plenty of time for the self-regulations to evolve and for more of the food industry to get on board. Then we'll have a full picture of the nature of the change."

After three decades of studying the interrelations of media and contemporary life, Gantz says he's developed "a real appreciation" for the difficulty of enacting change. "But that doesn't mean you don't do anything," he says. "Our study is out there for policymakers and manufacturers to think about. Advertising is one piece of the puzzle, and if you want to create change, you have to tackle each of the pieces."

Lauren J. Bryant is editor of Research & Creative Activity magazine.

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