Food and beverage marketing to children and adolescents: Limited progress by 2012, recommendations for the future

For decades, American children and adolescents have been surrounded by advertising and marketing for unhealthy foods and beverages. While the food and beverage industry, as well as local and national levels of government, have started to recognize the role that food and beverage marketing plays in driving the childhood obesity epidemic, American youths are still exposed to a disproportionate amount of marketing for unhealthy products across a variety of media.

This research review from Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, summarizes the academic and industry literature on trends in food marketing to children and adolescents, as well as policy initiatives undertaken to address the contribution of marketing practices to the childhood obesity epidemic, from March 2011 to May 2012. Policy implications and future research needs are also highlighted.

Key research findings:

  • Although the industry has improved its self-regulatory program through the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), there are still loopholes and gaps that allow companies to market unhealthy foods and beverages to young people.
  • Lobbyists from the food and beverage industry sought to influence legislators and the public to halt the release of comprehensive voluntary marketing guidelines to improve the nutritional quality of food and beverage products marketed to American children and adolescents.
  • Research disputes the food industry’s claims about some of the challenges in reformulating child-targeted products to improve their nutritional quality with emerging research showing that healthy products can be a profitable segment of the food business.
  • Based on the CFBAI definition, media, such as television shows, are considered child-directed if the audience base includes more than 35 percent of children ages 12 or younger. Research has shown that this definition has produced uneven improvements to the landscape of television advertising, which still reaches millions of children and predominately features advertisements for unhealthy products.
  • Many digital media channels, such as advergames, serve as channels for food marketing to children and adolescents. While the CFBAI was revised in 2010 to include digital media marketing, research has found that CFBAI-participating companies use channels such as advergames to promote unhealthy products to children.
  • Compared with white children, African American and Latino children who experience higher rates of overweight, obesity, and diet-related chronic diseases, are exposed to higher levels of marketing for unhealthy food and beverage products.
  • The use of popular characters on product packaging, which is outside the scope of the CFBAI, influences children’s food preferences for unhealthy foods.
  • The presence of competitive foods in schools is a marketing opportunity for the food and beverage industry. Research demonstrates the need for strong standards for foods sold in schools.
  • Local policy interventions to improve children’s food marketing environments have had mixed success.

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