Much has been written about the degree to which the incessant advertising of unhealthy foods affects Americans, especially impressionable children. My opinion on the matter might be best summarized by explaining one of my favorite installments of the "Speed Bump" comic strip.
An inventor sits in a patent office with a large disk that has dials and needles on his lap, waiting. Seated on the other side of the desk, the patent officer looks at the gizmo skeptically.
Finally, he says, "Here's my wallet, my keys, and an application for your so-called mind-control device."
If you feel my analogy is too melodramatic, consider the results of a study that showed food commercials to 75 children from the ages of 3 to 5 between two cartoon films. Published by The Journal of Pediatrics and performed at Texas A & M, the study showed the same cartoon shows but different commercials to two groups. One group viewed a commercial for French fries; the other, one for apple slices with a dipping sauce.
Afterwards, the children were reunited with their parents and given the option of getting a coupon for either the French fries or the apple slices with dipping sauce. Some parents were instructed by the researchers to encourage their children to select the healthier choice. Other parents were told to offer no opinion.
What was a bit of a surprise was how little influence the parents had on the children's choices and how effective the "bad" commercial was.
In the group that saw the commercial for French fries, 71 percent of the children opted for the French fries coupon if their parents offered no opinion, yet when mom and dad told their 3 to 5 year olds not to take the French fries coupon but to pick the healthier option, 55 percent of the children disobeyed.
The researchers, lead by Dr. Christopher Ferguson, an assistant professor in Behavioral, Applied Sciences and Criminal Justice at Texas A & M, did not anticipate the figure to be nearly that high. Despite that, Ferguson said in an interview for Medical News Today that "parents are not powerless" partially because "advertisements can work both for and against healthy eating."
That may be so, but according to a Kaiser Foundation study on the number of commercials that children typically watch, advertisements overwhelmingly work against and not for healthy eating. Children 8 to 12 years old, the group most often targeted in ads because they are developing eating habits, making more of their own food choices, and purchasing some food items away from the family, view an average of 21 ads for food on television a day, 75 percent of which promote a food that the American Psychological Association (APA) links to the obesity epidemic.
They see a public service announcement touting the benefits of healthy foods about three times per week.
This disparity may be in part why other research cited at the APA web site shows that in "very young children" every one-hour increase in television viewing further increases the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, fast food, red and processed meats, and overall calories.
It's studies like these along with the fear of government intervention that spurred 10 of the major junk food producers including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and McDonald's to create The Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) on November 10, 2006. Soon seven other companies hopped on board, and by 2009 the CFBAI was reporting a reduction in the numbers published by the Kaiser Foundation.
But it seems as if CFBAI has replaced quantity with quality. While their research shows a significant drop in commercials views by children of all ages, 86 percent are now "unhealthy" ads those promoting foods featuring products high in saturated fat, sugar, or salt.
When the commercial viewed by kids is for a snack, the item contains an excess of one of the three of aforementioned "unhealthy" elements 97 percent of the time.
Another study that suggests commercials still influence children and teenagers comes from The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Last October, they announced that the consumption of sugary sodas is now the number-one source of calories in the diets of American teenagers, in part because the industry targets that audience.
And while parents may not be able to dictate what a teenager drinks outside of the house, they can certainly see to it that sugary sodas are not available inside it. Another serious consideration, especially for children under the age of 8 or so, is to limit television viewing as a way to limit exposure to commercials.
Children under the age of 8, according to the APA, don't understand that advertising is designed to persuade. Combining this lack of awareness with a child's "remarkable ability to recall content from ads" creates a situation that the APA deems "exploitive."