Children’s exposure to food advertising on television has fallen over the past 30 years, casting doubt on the role of junk-food ads in the nation’s obesity epidemic, according to a report released yesterday by the Federal Trade Commission.
In 2004, children ages 2 through 11 viewed about 25,600 television advertisements, the FTC said. Of those ads, about 5,500 were for food. In 1977, the last time the FTC released similar data, children viewed an estimated 6,100 food ads.
“I think childhood obesity is a major problem,” said Michael Salinger, director of the bureau of economics at the FTC. “But I think the study casts doubt on whether food advertising is the main culprit.”
More than twice as many children — and almost three times as many teens — are overweight as were in 1980, according to the American Heart Association. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that currently 16 percent of all children and teens are overweight.
Obesity, which is defined as a condition with a slightly higher body mass than overweight people, is a major risk factor for heart disease and diabetes.
The report’s results seem to contradict other data that have led to concern that the rising obesity rate among children is a result of TV ads for junk food.
The most prominent report on advertising and childhood obesity was done in March by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health policy group. That report said children’s exposure to the billions of dollars worth of food advertising on television is a key mechanism through which the media contribute to childhood obesity.
The discrepancy is in the ages of the children studied. The Kaiser report found that children ages 2 to 7 were exposed to fewer ads, but those 7 to 12 were exposed to more ads. The FTC examined children 2 to 11 years old.
“They didn’t break out the numbers like we did,” said Vicky Rideout, a Kaiser Family Foundation vice president. “I think we’re on the same page. We show less ads for a younger age group and more for older children.”
Also, the FTC report showed that half of the food advertising children saw in 2004 was on children’s shows — twice the level of 1977.
The March Kaiser survey seemed to validate concerns by children’s advocacy groups and public nutrition watchdog organizations that food and beverage companies were unfairly targeting children’s programming and contributing to the childhood obesity rate.
“The FTC has taken a comprehensive, long-range study of food marketing to children, and these conclusions are very striking in light of the Kaiser survey,” said Adonis Hoffman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. “I’ve got to believe the FTC study would at least make us question the linkage between obesity and advertising.”
The FTC report shows that children’s advertising is concentrated on nonfood ads. The report says 78 percent of the ads children saw in 2004 were for nonfood products. The top three categories include promotions for television programming, at 28 percent, screen entertainment at 8 percent and toy and games at 7.5 percent.
The FTC report is based the agency’s analysis of Nielsen data — including cable television — for a four-week period in 2004 projected to an annual estimate. The Kaiser study is a culmination of more than 40 studies on the role of media in the nation’s childhood obesity problem.
“Our estimates are based on very detailed data not available to most researchers,” the FTC report said.
Another difference between the two reports is the number of ads seen by children overall. The Kaiser report cites studies that show the typical child views about 40,000 ads per year, almost 50 percent less than the FTC says.
Last year, 10 of the largest food and beverage companies established the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. The initiative is designed to shift the mix of advertising messaging to children to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles. Participants include Campbell Soup Co., Coca-Cola Co., General Mills Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc.
“I think we’ll see even more of it,” Mr. Hoffman said. “This report shows that their efforts are working.”