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Rudd Radar

Despite Promises, Cereal Companies Play on Children’s Imaginations to Promote Unhealthy Products

August 27, 2013

Despite industry promises to avoid deceptive and inappropriate advertising to children, cereal companies promote unhealthy products to children using messages and images that exploit their imaginations and mislead them about the characteristics of a product, according to a study by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. The study is published online in the Journal of Health Communication.

Through the industry’s Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), companies voluntarily pledge to not advertise to children in a deceptive, unfair, or inappropriate manner. CARU standards take into account the special vulnerabilities of children, like their susceptibility to being misled or influenced, and their lack of cognitive skills needed to evaluate the credibility of advertising. In addition, CARU promises not to exploit children’s imaginations or mislead children about the benefits of using a product.

Researchers viewed 158 cereal advertisements that appeared on U.S. television between 2008 and 2009. They identified the types of messages, creative techniques and eating behaviors presented in each of the ads. Using data obtained from Nielsen, a media research company, the researchers examined how often children viewed the specific products and messages in these advertisements.

The study found that despite pledges to not exploit children’s imaginations, 91% of the ads for sugary cereal viewed by children associated cereals with adventures or emotional appeals, depicting the product as a plaything providing entertainment and fun, rather than a source of nutrition and sustenance.

In addition, despite promises not to mislead children about the benefits of using a product, researchers found that 59% of the ads did just that by, for example, associating the product with having fun or being cool and popular.

“These findings raise ethical, as well as public health concerns, given children’s limited ability to critically process the messages raised in cereal advertising, “ said lead author Megan LoDolce, MA, Research Associate at the Rudd Center. “Food companies must adhere to their promises and limit messages in child-directed advertising that confuse and mislead children about nutrition and healthy eating.”

According to the Institute of Medicine, children are especially vulnerable to the influence of advertising. Younger children in particular are unable to differentiate between media meant to promote a product and media meant to entertain. The researchers argued that because children are more susceptible to advertising, the current commercial environment makes it likely that children will normalize the consumption of sugary cereals.

The study was funded by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Rudd Foundation.

The paper was co-authored by the Rudd Center’s Megan LoDolce, MA, Research Associate; Jennifer Harris, PhD, MBA, Director of Marketing Initiatives; and Marlene Schwartz, PhD, Director.