Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity
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Rudd Radar

Food Marketing Expenditures Aimed at Youth

August 15, 2013

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a report in 2012 showing that food and beverage companies spent less on marketing to children in 2009 than they had in 2006. The FTC report found an inflation-adjusted 19.5% reduction in marketing expenditures targeted to youth from $2.1 billion in 2006 to $1.8 billion in 2009.

However, a recent study just published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine by Bridging the Gap and the Yale Rudd Center shows concerning food marketing trends and confirms that when marketing to children and teens, the food and beverage industry still spends the bulk of its money to promote unhealthy products.

The study, “Food Marketing Expenditures Aimed at Youth–Putting the Numbers in Context,” provides a close examination of the FTC expenditures report in the context of other related research. Key findings include:

  • The vast majority of youth-directed ads promote unhealthy foods and drinks, such as fast-food products, carbonated beverages, and cereals, candies, and other items that are high in sugar and/or fat. Compared with the foods and beverages marketed to adults, those marketed to children continue to be much less healthy overall.
  • The single largest decrease in marketing expenses was due to a drop in the cost and distribution of toys that fast-food restaurants offered with kids’ meals.
  • Fast-food companies dramatically increased their spending on TV ads targeting children—and while some slightly improved the nutritional quality of kids’ meals, the number of child-directed TV ads for other higher-calorie meals and menu items more than doubled.
  • Major increases in spending on newer marketing platforms, like online games, ads, mobile apps, text messaging, and social networks. 

The authors assert that the current analysis highlights the lack of progress in existing industry-initiated actions and demonstrates that stronger self-regulatory efforts are needed to noticeably reduce youth exposure to unhealthy food marketing. Continued monitoring of expenditures, exposure, and nutritional content is needed, and policy actions by federal, state, and local governments and regulatory agencies may be required.

The analysis was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through the Bridging the Gap program and the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity; the Rudd Foundation; and the NIH National Cancer Institute.