Youngsters’ and Television: Impact of Food Advertisements and Increase in Obesity

Subject: Entertainment & Media
Pages: 11
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The issue of increasing obesity among children and youth has baffled many parents and other stakeholders, necessitating the need to investigate the negative role of television advertisements on nutrition and eating habits among many children and youths. The outstanding conviction has been that children’s food preferences and consumption patterns can be changed positively or negatively by media and advertising (Berdanier, Dwyer, and Feldman, 2007, p.323). Indeed, in contemporary society, children have increasingly become the target of powerful and specialized food marketing and advertising efforts largely through television advertisements.

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Some people and organizations have indeed supported these claims of the negative impacts of television advertisement on the health of children stating that the television content has largely promoted the advertisement of high fat and sugar foods, which is inconsistent with the recommendations of proper diet. At the same time, other groups of people specifically those in the marketing profession have disputed this claim. Those against it believe that the health problem among children has been aggravated and stimulated by other factors other than television, and therefore it is selective discrimination for one to wholesomely blame the television for dietary problems among children. What is evident is that children and the youth have largely embraced television viewing as their foremost trusted hobby and that they spend a relatively long time watching television programs than being engaged in other activities. Therefore, whatever they are likely to watch or hear in the media is likely to contribute to their consumption choices as envisaged in the various television programs.


There has not been a more health alerting issue in recent times than the issue of obesity among children and youth. Today in many parts of the United States of America, the waistlines of children are growing bigger at a rate that has thrown many parents into a panic. A survey by Harris Interactive has established that more than 75 percent of parents are convinced that the food industry’s advertisement programs have a direct impact on children’s cases of obesity and that the government needs to intervene and put checks on these types of advertisements (Casison-Tansiri, 2005). Further, research by the National Center for Health Statistics has shown that 16 percent of children and youth who are aged between 6 to 19 years are overweight which represents a 45 percent increase about a decade ago (Casison-Tansiri, 2005). At the same time, a study by the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington has established that child obesity is related to, and promoted by numerous TV adverts for junk foods.

Poulter (2006) states about rampant cases of the childhood obesity epidemic in Britain and asserts that it is because young people have been bombarded by numerous advertisements of junk foods on television. However, Food Standards Agency, in their research carried out in 2003 summarized its findings and observed that food and beverage advertisements had a direct influence and effect on the preferences, purchases, and consumption children made, thus long-term exposure to such advertisements could negatively contribute to diet-related impacts and risks especially among young people (Poulter, 2006). Findings by The Royal College of Physicians has shown similar evidence and established that between the year 1990 and 2002, cases of youngster obesity had trebled. The firm further did highlight that, since children continue to watch television, encouragement from the advertisement will continue to lure them into eating unhealthy foods (Poulter, 2006). Despite agreeing to the issue of television promoting obesity, the firm is however not investing all the blames to the television, but rather believes other factors contribute to youngster obesity and such factors include; gender, the cost of food, and the individual’s family eating habits (Poulter, 2006). Moreover, recommendations have been made that junk food advertisements should not be allowed on television before 9 pm, youngsters to be limited on daytime television watching and restrictions to be imposed on advertisements of food that is high in fat, sugar, and salt content (Poulter, 2006).

Negative effects of television advertisement on youngsters

Many companies have self-regulatory systems in place that are initiated to see the safety of their products specifically about consumers. Surprisingly, most of these self-regulatory systems do not address the needs of young people, especially their protection from harmful advertisements. This has been compounded by the fact that most companies set their guidelines and there is a lack of consensus among companies on the levels of sugar, fat, and salt content of various foods (Brody, 2010). Despite this, the junk food advertisements which promote high sugar cereals, fast foods, snacks, and candy foods on television continue to be one of the major contributors to youngster obesity (Brody, 2010). A study by Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine carried out in 2006 found that any added time to television viewing ensured that youngsters ended up consuming an additional 167 calories and low-nutrient foods that television was advertising (Brody, 2010). Another research by the same organization also found out that movies that were intended for children and adolescents had features of brand advertisement, and that big companies like Coca-cola and Pepsi, despite showing commitment not to advertise on children televisions, had indeed violated this by advertising their products which are largely sugar-sweetened beverage products, in movies that were intended for children and youth (Brody, 2010).

Another research designed and carried out by UCLA School of Public Health in 2008 found out that, there was a positive association between television viewing and youngsters’ obesity whereby young people had continued to be exposed to commercials that advertise unhealthy foods (Anonymous, 2010). The study significantly established that young people who had constantly viewed food commercials were observed to have higher body mass index (BMI) and the effect was seen to be more powerful among children younger than seven years than those above this age (Anonymous, 2010). Compared to those who had the habit of non-commercial viewing and who largely watched educational programs, their cases of obesity were negative and very minimal, thus these findings ignited the researchers to commend that drawing the youngsters away from viewing commercial adverts on the television could reduce youngsters’ obesity. Their observation was that food was the most frequently advertised commodity on youngsters’ television and rampant evidence showed children start watching television frequently before they reach the age of two (Anonymous, 2010). For example, by the age of five, most children are believed to have been exposed to more than 4,000 television food adverts every year while every Saturday morning when children watch cartoons, an average of one food advert after every five minutes; moreover, evidence shows that over 95 percent of these adverts represent foods with poor nutritional value (Anonymous, 2010). This resulted in the lead researcher of the initiative, Zimmerman, to conclude that, “commercial television pushes children to eat a large quantity of those foods they should consume least and which are; sugary cereals, snacks, fast food, and soda pop” (Anonymous, 2010).

Zimmerman summarizes by advising that, there should be no absolute limitation on youngsters’ television viewing for there is the availability of “high-quality, enjoyable and educational programs for all ages on DVD should make it relatively easy for health educators and care providers to nudge children’s viewing toward content that does not contain unhealthy messages about food and eating” (Anonymous, 2010). For instance, he concurs that,” just as there are far better and more nutritious foods than those advertised on television, there are also far better and more interesting shows on television than those supported by advertising” (Zimmerman; cited in Anonymous, 2010).

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Researching in 2005, Harrison and Marske found out that snacks, fast foods, and sweets dominated food advertisements that were aired during television programs and which were heavily viewed by children exceeded the recommended daily values for total fat, saturated fat, and sodium. At the same time, the commercials failed to provide useful recommendations of daily values for fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron which are essentially useful to the health of children and adolescents (Berdanier, Dwyer, and Feldman, 2007, p.323).

According to different research carried out at different times such as that of Brown, 1977; Cotugna, 1988; Dibb, 1996 and Dibb & Castell, 1995 (cited in Gunter, Oates, and Blades, 2005, p.104), many children are exposed to thousands of advertising messages in every year and the advertisements largely are for food products and in most cases, these products being advertised are of uncertain nutritional value to the youngsters. Noted was the fact that these advertisements were hidden in programs that were intended for children and the adverts promoted foods that had high sugar, fat and calorific value content. At the same time, young people were greatly encouraged to consume these products, for most adverts were accompanied by distorted messages that emphasized fun, taste, and social benefits which would be gained as a result of consuming these food products (Gunter, Oates, and Blades, 2005, p.104). Researching the related issue, Munoz et al. (1997; cited in Gunter, Oates, and Blades, 2005, p.104) observed that most television advertisements on food had promoted little information and knowledge on the importance of eating fresh fruit and green vegetable, instead, had concentrated in promoting foods high in sugar and fat content and this had led to increasing in cases of youngsters’ obesity and dental health problems.

Vandenbruane and De Bens (1992; cited in Gunter, Oates, and Blades, 2005, p.100) realized that a variety of factors including television could influence children’s consumer preferences and purchases. They found out that televised advertisement played a big part in determining youngsters’ buying choices; however, it was not the only contributory major factor. Such findings, therefore, give the role played by television in determining consumer behavior among youngsters but at the same time, it does not appear to be the dominating element. The authors disagree with the wide held belief that television advertising represents a pervasive and menacing influence on children and in its singularity, it has the potential to shape the young peoples’ purchasing intentions, decisions, and later behavior (Gunter, Oates and Blades, 2005, p.100). The clear role of advertising commercials on television to a youngster is thus deduced to carry some negative effects that have largely been associated with health problems among young people. But as debate continues to rage on the role played by television, other factors need to be investigated and their potential role again estimated in the whole issue of obesity among youngsters.

The role played by other factors in accelerating obesity among youngsters

Various researches conducted have concluded that television cannot be regarded as the sole element in the promotion of consumption of unhealthy foods among youngsters. For instance, wide research evidence exists on the various factors other than television that have promoted and accelerated bad eating behaviors among children and the youth. According to Gunter, Oates, and Blades (2005, p.100), although television advertisements carry a lot of information that youngsters rely on in making their purchasing decisions, there exists another wide range of important factors that can influence youngsters consumption decisions and behavior. They describe such factors to include, that children product preferences can be shaped by advertising but equally can be influenced by product attributes, personal experiences with specific brands, point-of-purchase factors such as packaging and retail promotion, the opinions of parents, and the views of peer groups (Gunter, Oates and Blades, 2005, p.100). For example, McNeal (1992; cited in Gunter, Oates and Blades, 2005, p.100), while acknowledging that advertisement plays a big part in the eating habits of young people, observes that the advertisement itself comes in different forms and not only television. Such varying forms of advertisement include the radio, cinema, magazines and newspapers, and billboards and posters. To the author, these other forms of advertisements are equally potentially endowed to influence the eating habits of adolescents and children. The author describes how young people have become cinema-going and that many advertisements have found cinemas to be effective ways of getting to this vital market segment of society.

Internet on the other hand is becoming one of the major avenues where young people are extracting food-related information, accounting significantly for their consumption decisions. For example, Thompson and Laing (2003; cited in Gunter, Oates, and Blades, 2005, p.101) interviewed children and adolescents who had been exposed to the internet and their findings concluded that almost half of the youngsters had used the internet for ‘window-shopping’. From the internet, they agreed to the fact that they had sought information related to products and this had helped them to make decisions of purchasing the products in shops. Many preferred the internet with the conviction that it was more reliable than sales staff in product shops and that internet had won the confidence of most teenagers by empowering them more than any other media had done (Gunter, Oates and Blades, 2005, p.101). From this, it becomes evident that the internet plays a vital role in the consumption decision of youngsters and this role may increase in future than in any other media.

Further, information about products and consumption which may influence youngsters eating behaviors may be derived from educational materials which most retail outlets and service providers distribute in schools (Gunter, Oates and Blades, 2005, p.101). Since most youngsters are still schooling, they are in a position to get a lot of product information from the various school visits by retail people, organized field trips to store and also from the commercially sponsored educational videos which contain advertising content (Pereira, 1990; cited in Gunter, Oates, and Blades, 2005, p.101). About these educational materials, MacIndoe (1999; cited in Gunter, Oates, and Blades, 2005, p.101) developed a list of commercial activities that were popular among schools in Britain and they included incentive voucher schemes, sponsorship of educational resources, sponsored stationery, poster and billboard advertising. To the author, such advertising does not only reach the young people directly, but it does so in the context of school and where children pay a lot of attention taking notice and a keen interest in what is presented to them; such advertisement becomes an influential source of brand and product information for children and teenagers (Gunter, Oates, and Blades, 2005, p.101).

Again, a sedentary lifestyle which is characterized by reduced physical education classes at school has been pointed out as contributing to the cases of obesity among youngsters. For instance, most children have substituted physical fitness classes with watching television or spending on computer and this has resulted in fewer calories being burnt in the bodies of such children (Young, 2003; Gunter, Oates and Blades, 2005, p.104).

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It has been noted that parents, and large family practices, may influence the eating habits of young people. For example, parents in many instances control availability and accessibility of foods, meal structure, food socialization practices, and even physical activities of children (Beverly, 2009) while the same parents may consume poor diet and pay little attention to portion size their children consume (Fabricant, 1994; cited in Gunter, Oates, and Blades, 2005, p.104). Therefore it becomes clear that these contributory factors by the family may also play part in accelerating cases of obesity among youngsters.

How television can promote good eating habits

Despite the negative implications television has been associated with in promoting obesity, it should not be forgotten that the same television has contributed to advertising good eating behaviors among young people. Such programs have focused on educating and sensitizing the youth on the importance of eating the right foods which contain low fats, sugar, and calorie value. At the same time, the television has sensitized children, adolescents, and parents in general on the need to emphasize physical exercises and classes for the youngsters. Today television use role models who are becoming beneficial in influencing the dietary habits of youngsters positively. For example, the TV-Turnoff Network has largely been at the forefront in sensitizing children and their parents on the need to turn off the television and instead replace that time with other leisure family activities and which can contribute to good health among the youngsters. Two programs namely: TV Turnoff Week and More Reading Less TV are held every year during the last week of April. The program encourages physical activity such as gardening, skating, dancing, walking and bicycling, and sometimes playing a specific sport (Edelstein and Sharlin, 2009, p.245). On the other hand, More Reading, Less TV program has been promoting reading culture among the youngsters and also the adults instead of watching television (Edelstein and Sharlin, 2009, p.246).


While many people and other lobby groups content that television has promoted bad eating behaviors among the youngsters there is a need for both stakeholders to design effective programs and policies that are free of discrimination and freedom curtailing to the youngsters and such policies should see television take more role of promoting good dietary behaviors to the youngsters. Commercial advertisements can be packaged to promote the safety of youngsters without having to comprise their health. Television viewing for the youngsters can again be positively regulated specifically by their parents. This can take place through either reducing time spent on television, advising on proper programs to watch, and even removing television sets from youngsters’ bedrooms. At the same time, parents role in influencing positively the dietary habits of their children should be emphasized since they are in a good position to understand their children’s dietary practices, physical activities, and weight status, and from such information, the parents can adequately learn how to create a healthful nutrition environment in their homes, discourage sedentary behaviors and also serve as good role models to the youngsters. Other avenues such as schools and peer groups and which have great potential to influence and impact either positively or negatively on the eating habits of youngsters need again to be explored with adequate research information being generated for efficient decision making at the policy level. For instance, school-based programs such as Planet Health, CATCH, Eat Well and Keep Moving and the GEMS have been successful in promoting good eating habits among children. Nevertheless, the presence of television will continue to pose great impacts on the dietary habits of most youngsters in society.


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