Study finds toddler preference for breakfast cereals is swayed by TV ads

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

US researchers have found that TV advertising influences toddler's choice of breakfast cereals. Pic: ©GettyImages/gmevi/panic_attack
US researchers have found that TV advertising influences toddler's choice of breakfast cereals. Pic: ©GettyImages/gmevi/panic_attack

Related tags Breakfast cereals Sugar Marketing Children Cereal partners worldwide Kellogg company General mills Post holdings study Research

A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggests toddlers are more likely to demand specific breakfast cereals after viewing television advertisements for these products.

According to the study – led by a team from the Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, US – preschoolers who watch more television advertisements for breakfast cereals consume more of the product.

The study focused on 10 cereals, including General Mills’ Cocoa Puffs, Lucky Charms, Honey-Nut Cheerios, Reese’s Puffs and Trix; Kellogg’s Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes; Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Pebbles from Post; and Cinnamon Toast Crunch from Cereal Partners Worldwide (a JV between General Mills and Nestle).

These cereals are considered to have a high in sugar content, at 9-12g per serving, which translates to more than 28g per serving, exceeding the maximum amount of daily recommended sugar intake for kids.

All 10 brands have previously pledged not to target advertising to children under the age of six.

34% more likely

“One factor believed to contribute to children’s poor quality diets is the marketing of nutritionally-poor foods directly at children,”​ said lead author of the study and a faculty member at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, Dr Jennifer Emond.

“I’m not sure parents truly appreciate how powerful marketing is to kids.”

Researchers surveyed parents of 624 preschool-age children (3-5 year-olds) every eight weeks for a year to see if there was a correlation between the exposure to TV ads and the consumption of cereals advertised.

They found that children who saw ads within the past seven days were 34% more likely to eat specific cereals than kids who did not see the ads. Seeing the ads at any point during the study was associated with a 23% higher likelihood of consuming these cereals, while the combination of seeing the ads in the past week and at any time during the study period was tied to a 37% higher likelihood that children would eat the cereals.

“We found that kids who were exposed to TV ads for high-sugar cereals aired in the programs they watched were more likely to subsequently eat the cereals they had seen advertised,”​ said Emond.

“Our models accounted for several child, parent and household characteristics, and whether the child ate each cereal before the study started. We were able to isolate the effect of cereal advertisement exposure on kids' intake of cereals, independent of all of those other factors.”

She noted the team stayed unbiased while conducting these studies and would have reported the results regardless of whether or not they had found a correlation.

Pester power

Emond explained children were able to obtain the advertised cereals through a phenomenon known as ‘pester power’.

“Especially around the holidays and birthdays, children will pester for products and toys they want. Similarly, when kids see these advertisements for foods, it does shape what they want and what they request,”​ she said.

According to the study’s authors, all 10 cereal brands have pledged not to target their advertising to children under the age of six, however, TV advertisements are obviously designed to catch children’s attention, regardless of the age group.

“Children don’t have the mental and cognitive capacity to critically analyze content. They don’t know what an advertisement or persuasion is,”​ added Emond.

Parental control

The study confirmed that children’s eating habits develop during the preschool years, while numerous studies have found that children who are overweight by the age of five are likely to remain overweight into adolescence and adulthood.

“These young children don’t buy these cereals on their own.

“As parents, we have a choice: we can shield our children from this marketing through controlling what we show our kids, or we can demand better guidelines,”​ she said.


Exposure to Child-Directed TV Advertising and Preschoolers’ Intake of Advertised Cereals

Authors: Jennifer A. Emond, Meghan R. Longacre, Keith M. Drake, et al.

American Journal of Preventive Medicine; Available online December 17, 2018;

Childhood obesity: increased risk for cardiometabolic disease and cancer in adulthood

Authors: Susann Weihrauch-Blüher, Peter Schwarz and Jan-Henning Klusmann

Metabolism; Available online December 5, 2018;


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