Children's television has long been peppered with ads selling sugary snacks and drinks as fun, adventurous options for cool kids in the know. Now a study suggests that many of these spots also promote these products to parents as nutritious, family-friendly choices.
Over the course of a year, commercials for about half of the 51 children's food and drink products advertised on network, cable and syndicated television in the U.S. targeted parents, often with themes of family bonding, nutrition and active lifestyles, researchers report in the journal Pediatrics.
Overall, about 42 percent of total airtime was devoted to advertisements targeting parents. For sugar-sweetened drinks, 73 percent of ad time targeted parents.
"Marketing sugary drinks to parents with themes of a healthy lifestyle may introduce doubt in a parent's mind that these drinks are bad for kids; these messages may convince parents it's ok to serve sugary drinks to their kids," said lead study author Jennifer Emond of Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Sugary drinks include not just sodas but also fruit flavored drinks and chocolate milk, Emond noted.
"Sugary drinks contribute to weight gain and cavities, and these drinks have also been related to other bad health outcomes in kids," Emond added by email.
The advertising study focused on how many ad minutes were devoted to children and their parents, and what types of messages were conveyed to each of these target audiences. It didn't look at how viewing the ads influenced consumption of the products, or at health outcomes related to eating or drinking the products.
Researchers analyzed food and beverage spots aired at least once between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. weekdays on Nickelodeon, NickToons, Disney XD and Cartoon Network because previous research found these were the top sources of kids' exposure to television ads for these products. Once those children's foods and beverages were identified, researchers analyzed all ads for those products that aired on any channel at any time.
Ads targeting kids were more likely to be animated, include a licensed character or brand mascot, feature foods as characters, or steer viewers to web sites or social media.
Parent-directed ads, by contrast, were more likely to feature parents with kids, show the item consumed in the ad, feature a nutritional or health message, and highlight an active lifestyle with sports or exercise.
"It's a two-part marketing strategy: companies convince the kids to pester their parents for the products, and then give the parents information to make them think that it's ok to give in to their kids on this one," said Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.
Besides limiting screen time and keeping televisions out of children's bedrooms, parents can also avoid the ads by having kids view shows in ad-free formats, Harris, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.
Parents should also refrain from buying products advertised on children's television, Harris advised.
"They are less healthy than similar products that are not advertised to kids," Harris said.