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Exposure to Sugary Breakfast Cereal Advertising Influences Our Children’s Diets

Bowl of colorful cereal

Young children are being bombarded by food advertising. The adoption of poor eating habits including excess consumption of sugar can lead to obesity, a known risk factor for 13 cancers, among several other chronic diseases. Children's eating habits develop during the preschool years, and children who are overweight by the age of five are likely to remain overweight into adolescence and adulthood. Unfortunately, many young children have low-quality diets and consume too few fruits and vegetables and too much sugar, salt and fat.

One issue believed to contribute to children’s poor quality diets is the direct marketing of nutritionally-poor foods to children. Brands specifically target children, spending more than $102 million annually designing advertisements that attract children's attention with animation, brand mascots, licensed media characters and themes of fun, knowing that children will pester their parents for those products.

Lab studies have already shown that children will request and prefer brands they have seen recently advertised on TV, but we wanted to examine the effectiveness of TV food ad exposure on childrens' diets in a real-world setting. We conducted the first long-term study among preschool-age children to see how exposure to TV ads for high-sugar cereals influenced their subsequent intake of those advertised cereals. Importantly, we were able to look at brand-specific effects. In other words, does advertising for “Brand X” cereal relate to an increased intake of “Brand X” cereal?

We tracked childrens' TV ad exposure based on the shows they watched on children's network TV. We purchased an advertising database and actually counted, by brand, the cereal ads that aired on the children's TV network programs that each child watched. Parents were asked every eight weeks, for one year about the shows their children watched and what cereals they ate. We found that children who were exposed to TV ads for high-sugar cereals aired in the programs they watched were more likely to eat the cereals they had seen advertised.

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 childrens' intake of cereals, independent of all of those other factors.

Helping preschool-age children follow healthy dietary patterns and maintain a healthy weight are important steps to foster lifestyle behaviors that can reduce the lifetime risk of many chronic diseases. Child-targeted marketing of foods high in sugar makes it hard for parents to shape healthy eating habits in our children. It’s hard to even notice sometimes. The good news is that it is modifiable. There are policy-level actions that could be put in place to reduce children’s exposure to food marketing and to improve the quality of the foods marketed to kids. And we as parents always have the choice to switch to ad-free TV for our children and for ourselves.

Julie EmondJennifer Emond, PhD, is a member of the Cancer Population Science Research Program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock's Norris Cotton Cancer Center and Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Data Science Geisel School of Medicine. Her research interests include examining the effects of food marketing on the development of obesogenic eating behaviors during early childhood and the associations between dietary behaviors, media use and sleep on children’s obesity risk.