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Unhealthy Food Advertising on Children’s Cartoons: Just the Tip of the Iceberg

March 12, 2013

Remote control with food choices

In response to public health concerns about the link between food advertising and poor diet among children, most major food companies have joined the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a self-regulatory program where companies pledge to advertise only “healthier dietary choices” in child-directed programming. It sounds like companies are trying to do the right thing for children’s health with these pledges but independent research shows numerous loopholes that allow companies to continue to aggressively market unhealthy food to children. For example, companies define products like Reese’s Puffs cereal, Popsicle AirHeads, and Fruit Gushers as “healthier dietary choices.” In addition, they don’t consider cartoon characters on packages to be “child-directed” advertising. Even candy websites like and are full of branded games for children (i.e., advergames) but do not qualify as child-directed according to the companies.

In a study just published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, another loophole in industry self-regulation is documented:  Food companies are allowed to advertise their least-nutritious products during TV programs that do not qualify as “child-directed” according to their criteria, even programs that clearly appeal to children like Hannah Montana and “Shrek the Halls” holiday special. In fact, more than half of all food ads that children see—on average 6.6 ads every day—don’t qualify as child-directed and thus don’t have to meet companies’ nutrition standards for foods advertised to children. Yet this analysis also shows that companies could protect children from unhealthy food advertising on TV if they truly wanted to. For example, another definition of child-directed programming was identified that would cover seven of ten food ads seen by children, but just one third of ads viewed by adults.

In another report  just released at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, channels and programs are documented where children see these unhealthy food and beverage ads. The findings were a surprise: Most CFBAI participants say they do not advertise to very young children, yet 2- to 5-year-olds see an average of >11 food ads per day, and one out of ten of those ads appear on just one show—SpongeBob Squarepants. 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. The CFBAI does not consider 12- to 14-year-olds to be “children,” but they see more food ads than any other group of young people—more than 15 ads per day on average. Viacom is responsible for more food advertising than any other media company—42% of all food ads viewed by youth under 18.

In both studies, data from Nielsen were used, the same data the industry uses to develop and monitor their advertising plans. These studies propose several options for food and media companies to improve food advertising to children. But they don’t need us to tell them what they should do to improve children’s health—they already know.

— Jennifer L. Harris, PhD, MBA
The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

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