Researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity said ready-to-eat (RTE) cereals are the packaged food most frequently promoted in the overall $870m spent on child-targeted TV advertising in the US – representing 26% of the ad money.
They launched a study published in the Journal of Health Communication that investigated children’s exposure to advertising for high-sugar RTE cereal products and analyzed the content of each advert.
Findings showed that children viewed 1.7 ads per day for RTE cereals, and 87% of those ads promoted high-sugar products – those containing 13 grams of sugar per 50 gram serving.
Adults viewed half as many ads but there was a balance between advertising on high-sugar cereals and low-sugar options.
“In addition, the messages presented in high-sugar ads viewed by children were significantly more likely to convey unrealistic and contradictory messages about cereal attributes and healthy eating,” the researchers said.
“Given children’s vulnerability to the influence of advertising, the emotional and mixed messages used to promote high-sugar cereals are confusing and potentially misleading,” they continued.
Digesting cereal ads: Confusing and potentially misleading ads
Of the 158 ads in the analysis aired between January 1 2008 and March 31 2009, 47% promoted high-sugar cereals and 33% featured low-sugar cereals. The remaining 20% featured a variety of products or promoted the company as a whole.
“Ads for high-sugar cereals were significantly more likely to portray the product as more than food: 44% used animated cereals and 59% promoted emotional benefits. They were also more likely to feature healthy and unhealthy eating behaviors in the same ad,” the researchers said.
This is not the first study into advertising to children, they added, but it is the first that shows how children are exposed to “disproportionately more confusing and potentially misleading messages about the benefits of consuming high-sugar cereals”.
Although a large proportion (89%) of the cereal ads viewed by children portrayed healthy eating behaviors like consuming food at a table during mealtime and suggestions to eat a balanced breakfast, nine out of ten of these healthy portrayals appeared in ads for high-sugar cereals, they said.
“These healthy messages may lead children to believe that high-sugar cereals are also healthy choices.”
The cereals are also portrayed as fun to eat, with suggestions they would make a child cool and popular and include visions of magically transforming into cartoon characters, roller-coasters and other playthings.
“These findings raise ethical, as well as public health concerns, given children’s limited abilities to critically process the messages raised in cereal advertising,” the researchers said.
US childhood obesity boom
One out of three children in the US is overweight or obese, triple the rate of 30 years ago, the study said, and the marketing of energy-dense, nutrition-poor foods and beverages targeted to children is widely considered to be a significant contributor to this public health crisis.
The Council of Better Business Bureaus has launched the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) in 2006 – and the four biggest cereal firms pledged to only market healthier dietary choices in child-directed advertising. By 2013, the CFBAI has also said it will require all companies to limit sugar in children’s cereals to 10g per serving.
“Recent public health efforts, such as the Interagency Working Group nutrition recommendations and cereal company plans to reduce the sugar content in their child-targeted cereals, will help improve the nutritional quality of cereal products promoted in advertising to children. However, these efforts do no address the confusing and potentially misleading messages and creative techniques used to promote these products and their potential effects on children’s understanding of nutrition and healthy eating,” the researchers concluded.
Source: Journal of Health Communication
"Sugar as Part of a Balanced Breakfast? What Cereal Advertisements Teach Children About Healthy Eating"
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1080/10810730.2013.778366
Authors: ME. LoDolce, JL. Harris and MB. Schwartz