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Rudd Report Highlights Children's Exposure to Food and Beverage Ads on TV

March 18, 2013

Preschoolers see an average of more than 11 food ads per day, despite food companies' promises not to advertise to very young children, and one out of ten of those ads appear on just one show – Spongebob Squarepants, according to a recently released Rudd Report.

The report, "Where children and adolescents view food and beverage ads on TV: Exposure by channel and program," demonstrates that there is no clear differentiation between programming viewed by preschoolers, children, and early adolescents, which makes it difficult to protect children from junk food advertising.

Many of the largest food companies have joined the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) and have promised to promote only healthier dietary choices in advertising primarily directed to children under 12. Recognizing that very young children are particularly vulnerable to the influence of advertising, most participating companies also pledged to not engage in any advertising primarily directed to children under 6.

However, data from this report show that children ages 5 and under watch many of the same programs as older children, and 9- to 11-year-olds watch many programs aimed at early adolescents. Because of this loophole in food companies' pledges, most of children's exposure to food advertising is for products that companies say they will not advertise to them.

The report found more disturbing trends on child and adolescent exposure to food and beverage advertising on TV.

  • Nick at Nite, Adult Swim, and ABC Family do not show children's cartoons, but one out of six food ads seen by 9- to 11-year-olds air on those three channels.
  • Nickelodeon alone aired over one-fourth of the food ads viewed by 2- to 11-year- olds, averaging 3 ads viewed per day by every child in the United States.
  • The CFBAI does not consider 12- to 14-year-olds to be "children," but this age group sees more food ads than any other group of young people – more than 15 ads per day on average.
  • Viacom channels air more food advertising to youth than any other media company – 42% of all food ads viewed by youth under 18.

These findings show the need for substantial improvement in the food industry's self regulatory policies. Rudd Center researchers suggest that the CFBAI expand their pledges to promote only healthier dietary choices in programming widely viewed by all children, including 12 to 14 year olds. They also assert that the CFBAI expand the definition of children's programming to include programs viewed by large numbers of children not just programs with a high proportion of children in the audience.

Media companies, such as Viacom, also should establish more protective nutrition standards for ads that appear during their children's programming, as Disney and Ion have already done.

The Rudd Center's database of pledges on food marketing to children lists and describes all voluntary pledges from major global food and beverage companies worldwide, such as the CFBAI.