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RESEARCH BRIEF

Food Advertising Targeted at School-Age Children:


A Content Analysis
Sara C. Folta, PhD1, Jeanne P. Goldberg, PhD, RD1, Christina Economos, PhD1,
Rick Bell, ScD1,2, Rachel Meltzer, MS1

ABSTRACT
Objective: To determine whether the contents of food and beverage advertisements are associated
with physical activity and athletic ability more often than those for toys and games, and to describe
persuasive techniques used in advertising food and beverages to children.
Design: A content analysis of advertisements during 31 hours of school-age children’s television
programming.
Analysis: Chi-square tests were used to examine differences in depictions of physical activity. Types
of persuasive techniques were tabulated and, within each advertisement, categorized as implicit or
explicit.
Results: Food and beverage ads depicted children engaged in physical activity and associated the
advertised product with athletic ability significantly more than toy and game ads. Food was most
often associated with fun and good times (75%), pleasant taste (54.1%), being hip or cool (43.2%),
and feelings of happiness (43.2%).
Implications for Research and Practice: These findings raise concern that greater levels of
physical activity and athletic ability in food advertising, in which the product is frequently associated
with fun, may promote overconsumption, especially of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods. Further
research would elucidate whether this concern is warranted. On the other hand, since food
advertisements are presumably effective, health educators can use these techniques to formulate
messages for nutritious foods. This concept should be tested with well-designed interventions.
Key Words: childhood obesity, food, advertising
(J Nutr Educ Behav. 2006;38:244-248)

INTRODUCTION couraged through advertising.4 Many studies indicate that


advertising influences children’s food preferences and con-
Concern that young children cannot comprehend televi- sumption patterns.5 The World Health Organization con-
sion advertising and that it could have undue manipulative siders food marketing aimed at children to be a probable
effects on them was first raised in the 1970s.1 Advertising causative factor contributing to the obesity epidemic.6 Even
targeting children is emerging once again as a public policy
30-second messages have been shown to influence chil-
issue, this time in the context of the childhood obesity
dren’s food preferences.7
epidemic.
Our first goal in undertaking a content analysis of
Many studies have shown that children who spend
television advertising targeting school-age children was to
more time with media, particularly television, are more
determine whether physical activity and athletic ability
likely to be overweight.2 Television viewing may displace
less sedentary activities3 or lead to increased energy intake, were associated with the product more often in food ads
since the consumption of greater amounts of food overall, than in those for toys and games. Advocacy groups and
and specifically high-fat and high-sugar foods, may be en- academics have suggested that the food industry deflects
attention from its possible role in the obesity epidemic by
emphasizing physical activity.8,9 Others have suggested that
1
Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts
associating physical activity and athletics with nutrient-
University, Boston, Mass
2
Natick Research Center, Natick, Mass. poor foods may mislead children to believe that these foods
Author for correspondence: Sara C. Folta, PhD, Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman are healthful.10 However, to our knowledge, the association
School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, 150 Harrison Ave, Boston, between physical activity and food advertising has never
MA 02111; Phone: (617) 636-3423; Fax: (617) 636-3781; E-mail: sara.folta@tufts.edu
©2006 SOCIETY FOR NUTRITION EDUCATION
been quantified. To explore these claims, we compared the
doi: 10.1016/j.jneb.2006.04.146 frequency of moderate to vigorous physical activity in food
Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior ● Volume 38, Number 4, July/August 2006 245

ads with that in toy and game ads. The logic is that to play ments, and then refined it. To determine the final inter-
with a toy or game is no more likely to involve physical rater reliability, all variables were coded by both coders for
activity than eating or drinking. a sample of 57 food, toy, and game ads viewed during one
Our second goal was to explore the nature of the per- of the time slots. This number represented 47% of the
suasive techniques used in advertising to children. Previous unique food, toy, and game ads viewed during the entire 31
research has indicated that advertising for food products is hours. Variables that did not achieve inter-rater reliability
most often associated with fun and happiness.1,11 However, (Cohen’s kappa19 or Spearman’s rho) of 0.8 were excluded
very few content analyses of children’s television advertis- from final analysis. Inter-rater reliability statistics were cal-
ing in the United States have been published since the culated using Pram software (version 0.4.5, Skymeg Soft-
early 1990s. Of 5 studies identified that were published ware, www.geocities.com/skymegsoftware/pram.html). A
since 1995,4,11-14 only one examines the persuasive tech- third coder, blinded to the hypotheses, coded all variables
niques that were used.11 More in-depth and current research that compared food and toy ads. Inter-rater reliability for all
is warranted to determine which persuasive techniques to three coders was acceptable (⬎0.8) for these variables.
sell food to children have persisted since the most recent For this study, physical activity was defined as an activ-
analyses were conducted; to examine a broader range of ity done by a child or childlike character who would raise
persuasive techniques used to sell food; and to identify any his or her heart rate by, for example, running, jumping, or
new strategies that may have emerged in recent years. playing a sport. A product was considered to be associated
Although we do not have direct evidence of the effec- with increased athletic ability if consuming or using it
tiveness of the advertisements evaluated in the present resulted in improved physical performance.
study, we do know that advertising to children does influ- A list of persuasive techniques used in advertising to
ence their choices.5 For that reason, health educators may children was generated from a literature search of previous
want to adopt some of the strategies used by the commercial content analyses, and a preliminary coding instrument was
sector to promote more healthful foods. This information developed. The instrument was expanded and refined in an
may also help inform media literacy training to enable iterative process by coding ads observed in 5 hours of
children to critically evaluate media messages to under- children’s programming recorded a month prior to the
stand their implicit purpose and impact. Finally, as the actual data collection period.
debate continues about whether the United States should Persuasive techniques were further coded according to
implement policies that limit or change the nature of food whether the associations were explicit or implicit. An as-
advertising targeting children, as has been done in other sociation was considered explicit if it was stated explicitly
countries, a systematic study of advertising would help (“if you eat this, you will be stronger”) or if using or
inform policy decisions. consuming the product directly resulted in the characteris-
tic (the child eats the cereal and is able to perform an
athletic feat that he or she could not do immediately
STUDY PROCEDURES before). An association was considered implicit if words,
images, or actions alluded to the association, but it was not
A total of 31 hours of children’s programming was video- stated explicitly20 or shown.
taped during one week in late September 2003 in the Only advertisements deemed to be targeted toward
metropolitan Boston area, on stations and time slots that school-age children, ages 6-12 (rather than preschool chil-
were most popular with children, according to Nielsen dren, adolescents, or adults), were used in the final analysis
data.15,16 Children’s programming is increasingly found on of the ads. Ads were considered to be targeted toward
cable rather than network television,17 and in the United preschool children because they were slower paced and
States, most households with children have cable televi- more repetitive, and consistently featured preschool chil-
sion.18 Therefore, two cable stations (Nickelodeon and The dren. Ads targeting adolescents included more “adult”
Cartoon Network) and one network station (WB) were themes (such as romance) and featured older adolescents or
chosen. Time slots included weekdays from 7:00-10:00 AM adults in their early 20s.
and 3:00-6:00 PM, and Saturday mornings from 7:00 AM To test hypotheses related to physical activity in food
until 1:00 PM. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were ads compared to toy and game ads, chi-square statistics were
chosen as representative weekdays. For each weekday used.
morning and afternoon time slot, one of the three stations
was taped. A random procedure was used to determine
which station would be taped on which day. All three FINDINGS
stations were taped on Saturday. On WB, children’s pro-
gramming went only until 5:00 PM on weekdays and to There were a total of 987 advertisements and promotions in
12:00 PM on Saturdays, and there was no children’s pro- the 31 hours of children’s programming, or an average of
gramming in the morning time slot. approximately 32 per hour. Because ads and promotions
Two coders (the first and last authors) pretested the were 15 to 30 seconds each, this number represents approx-
initial coding instrument using a sample of the advertise- imately 12 minutes of nonprogram content per hour. Pro-
246 Folta et al/FOOD ADVERTISING TARGETED AT SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN: A CONTENT ANALYSIS

motions, defined as announcements for upcoming shows, TABLE 2. Types of Products Shown in Food/Restaurant Advertisements
movies, concerts, and contests, accounted for 28% of the targeted at School-Age Children (N ⫽ 37)
987 advertisements. Excluding promotions, there were 711
ads, of which 39% were for toys and games, and 35% were % of Total Food
for food and restaurants (Table 1). Type of Food Product N Advertisements
Of the 711 total, 183 unique advertisements were Breakfast cereal 10 27
shown. Therefore, on average, ads were repeated approxi- Restaurant, specific meal 7 19
mately 4 times each; however, the number of times an ad Sweet snack/dessert 5 13
was repeated was highly variable and ranged from 1 to 18 Other breakfast food (waffles, 4 11
times during the taping period. Of the 183 unique ads, 121 toaster pastries)
were for food, toys, or games. Of these, 100 were targeted Juice drinks 4 11
toward school-age children. Dairy 3 8
Breakfast cereals were the most heavily advertised foods Restaurant, no specific meal 3 8
(10 ads of 37, or 27% of unique food ads) (Table 2). We Savory snack 1 3
calculated percentage sugar content of all the cereal adver- Total 37 100
tised as the ratio of grams of sugars to grams of product per
serving. Based on this calculation, all cereals ranged be-
tween 33-47% sugar by weight. According to the ingredi- activity. The difference was significant (␹2 ⫽ 8.55, P ⬍
ents list, virtually all sugars were added (rather than natu- .007).
ral). Restaurant meals (such as McDonald’s Happy Meal™) Our second hypothesis was that products would be
were the next most prevalent (19%) category of ads, fol- associated with increased athletic ability more often in food
lowed by sweet snacks and desserts (13%), other breakfast ads than in toy and game ads. The product was associated
foods (11%), and juice drinks (11%). Of the 4 juice drinks with increased athletic ability in 13 of 37 (35.1%) food ads,
advertised, 3 contained 10% real fruit juice and one con- and in only 8 of 63 (12.7%) toy and game ads. This was also
tained none. Dairy products and restaurants each accounted a significant difference (␹2 ⫽ 7.07, P ⬍ .01).
for 8% of the foods advertised; 3% of the ads were for savory
snacks. There were no ads for fruits or vegetables or for Persuasive Techniques Used In Food
carbonated beverages during the sample period.
Advertisements
All 37 food ads were analyzed for the persuasive techniques
Physical Activity In Food Versus Toy and used. The foods being advertised were most often associated
Game Advertising with fun and good times, pleasant taste, being hip or cool,
and feelings of happiness (Table 3). They were also associ-
Our first hypothesis was that physical activity would be
ated with toys being given away with the product, athletic
depicted more often in food ads compared to toy and game
ability, innovation or newness, friendship or social success,
ads. Eighteen of 37 (48.6%) food ads showed some type of
magical or superhuman abilities, and deceiving or tricking
physical activity by a child or child-like animated character
adults. Less often, food products were associated with con-
that would raise his or her heart rate, whereas only 13 of 63
venience (10.8%; N ⫽ 4); deceiving or tricking older kids
(20.6%) toy and game ads depicted this type of physical
or siblings (10.8%; N ⫽ 4); turning a bad situation into a
good one (5.4%; N ⫽ 2); fun or interesting packaging
TABLE 1. Types of Advertisements Shown during 31 Hours of Children’s (5.4%; N ⫽ 2); and nutrition or healthfulness (5.4%; N ⫽
Programming (N ⫽ 711) 2). Physical attractiveness, physical comfort, annoying a
younger sibling, being able to play on fun equipment, being
% of Total able to play with the food, and love were each associated
Type of Advertisement N Advertisements with the product in only one ad. No ads associated the
Toys/games 274 39 product with either academic success or pleasing a parent.
Food/restaurant 247 35 In most cases, the association with the product was
CD/DVD/Video 63 9 implied. Associations were more likely to be explicit when
Services 29 4 the message included deceiving or tricking adults, a pleas-
Home/bath products 28 4 ant taste, or offers for free toys. When the product was
Electronics 20 3 associated with deceiving or tricking older kids or siblings,
Web site 15 2 half of the associations were implicit and half were explicit.
PSA 13 2
Local ad 8 1
DISCUSSION
Clothes/shoes 6 1
Total 711 100 This study confirms the anecdotal observation that food
advertisers link their products with physical activity. Phys-
Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior ● Volume 38, Number 4, July/August 2006 247

TABLE 3. Ten Most Common Qualities with which Food Advertisers Asso- advertising to some extent over the past decade. Finally,
ciate their Products this discrepancy may reflect the time of year that was
sampled. Sampling occurred in early fall (September), and
% Assoc. Implicit or a number of other studies have found that toy advertising
Product Associated With: N With Explicit? increases significantly in the “pre-Christmas” season.22 It is
Fun/good times 28 75.7 Implicit–82% possible that this increase had already begun when sam-
Explicit–18% pling took place.
Pleasant taste 20 54.1 Implicit–45% The most common persuasive technique that advertis-
Explicit–55% ers used was to associate their product with fun and good
Being hip or cool 16 43.2 Implicit–100% times. Apparently, this has been the most popular tech-
Feelings of happiness 16 43.2 Implicit–75% nique since the early days of television.11 Foods are also
Explicit–25% commonly associated with a pleasant taste. This finding is
Toys being given away with 13 35.1 Implicit–8% not surprising, considering that taste is a key determinant of
product Explicit–92% food choice.23
Athletic ability 13 35.1 Implicit–22% A limitation of this study is that sampling took place
Explicit–78% only in the fall. However, this time period is reasonably
Innovation/newness 12 32.4 * “typical” in that it was not during or near any programming,
Friendship/social success 11 29.7 Implicit–90.9 such as sweeps week, which would have a major effect on
Explicit–9.1 advertising. It is possible, as mentioned above, that toy
Magical/superhuman abilities 10 27 Implicit–90% advertising was higher in this sample due to its proximity to
Explicit–10% the pre-Christmas season. Another limitation is that only
Fooling/getting the better 8 21.6 Implicit–37.5% three television stations were sampled, one of which had no
of adults Explicit–62.5% programming for children in the morning. However, the
stations were chosen because they were rated as the most
*Did not achieve satisfactory inter-rater reliability. popular with children, based on Nielsen media data.

ical activity was depicted in one of every two food ads, but IMPLICATIONS FOR RESEARCH AND
in just one of every five toy or game ads. Likewise, food was PRACTICE
associated with increased athletic ability in more than one
in three food ads, but in just one in eight toy and game ads. Health educators can use some of the persuasive techniques
These findings raise several concerns. At best, these por- identified in this study to formulate messages for nutritious
trayals of physical activity could encourage children to foods targeted to school-age children. For example, based
become more active. At worst, advertisers could be using on these findings, a public service announcement (PSA)
them to divert the emphasis on food as a contributor to that promotes a healthful food such as broccoli to school-
obesity. Further study is warranted to determine children’s age children would associate the food with fun and happi-
perceptions of this relationship and of the effect, either ness, and would imply that it tastes good. Well-designed
positive or negative, that these ads may have on behavior. interventions to test whether these techniques will work to
Focus groups in which children view and respond to the ads increase consumption of more desirable foods are
would help to answer this question. Another approach warranted.
would be to conduct copy testing research, which is often Educators can also use this information to help design
used by the Federal Trade Commission to help determine if media literacy training for children. For example, such
advertising is deceptive.21 This type of research involves training could help make children aware that food is often
exposing a representative sample of the target population to associated with fun and happiness in order to make it seem
advertisements and then surveying the sample to determine more desirable. Older children have the ability to critically
their perceptions of the ad. evaluate these types of associations once they are aware of
We found that food advertising accounted for 35% of them.
all advertisements shown. Past studies have found that food Although a nutrient analysis of the advertised foods was
ads account for over 50% of all ads targeted toward chil- not conducted, our study corroborates earlier findings that
dren.14 A number of factors could explain the discrepancy. advertised foods are poor in nutritional quality.4 The foods
Food advertisers may be reducing the number of food ads advertised were high in calories, fat, and/or sugar. There
targeted toward children in response to increasing pressure. were no ads for fruits or vegetables. The net result is that
Many of the studies that showed a higher percentage of children, who watch between 20,000 and 40,000 advertise-
food ads were done before CDs, DVDs, video, electronics, ments per year,5 are probably getting a skewed picture of
and the Web were commonplace. It is also possible that foods and diets. A number of studies have established the
given a limited number of advertising minutes per hour, link between exposure to television advertising and food
these newer items have “crowded out” food, toy, and game preference and choice. The link between preference,
248 Folta et al/FOOD ADVERTISING TARGETED AT SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN: A CONTENT ANALYSIS

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