Food as a drug: Advertising increases snacking

DonutMost people have heard obesity being described as an epidemic. Although one study suggested that childhood obesity has peaked, many parents remain concerned about their children's eating habits. Two recent studies looked at food advertising and their potential impact on kids, and the results suggest that a focus on the "drug-like" properties of snacks might have an impact on diet. In an article in the July issue of Health Psychology, Yale University researchers describe a series of experiments examining the impact of food advertising on eating. In one experiment, 7 to 11 year-old children watched cartoons; one group watched a show with food commercials, and the other watched commercials that were unrelated to food. The children who saw the food commercials ate 45% more snack food while watching the show than those who did not see the same ads. All other things being equal, this increase in snacking could be extrapolated to an extra 10 pounds of weight gain per year from watching a half-hour show every day!

I'm sure that I'm guilty of snacking when watching shows with food advertising. As I was hunting around for other research investigating the link between ads and snacking, I found an article in the May issue of the Journal of Pediatric Health Care that examined the content of food advertising aimed at kids. Dr. Randy Page and Aaron Brewster of Brigham Young University recorded 55 hours of Saturday morning kids' shows, and 4 hours of weekday kids' programming, which contained 590 food-related ads. These included 147 unique commercials, 37 of which were for high-sugar cereals and 24 of which were for fast food restaurants. When they examined these ads more closely, they discovered that many of the commercials aimed at kids depicted the food as addictive, with characters in the ads engaging in behaviour resembling drug-seeking.

Of the 147 ads, 8% included characters who showed "exaggerated pleasure" when eating the food, and 12.9% included characters who could not live without it (i.e., they showed signs of addiction or dependency). Adults were portrayed negatively in 21.7% of the commercials, with kids in the ads undermining their authority or otherwise treating them with disrespect. When they examined the high-sugar cereal ads on their own, 16.2% showed exaggerated pleasure, 24.3% had characters who were dependent on the food. Fifty-four percent of the cereal ads depicted inappropriate behaviour, some of which resembled drug-seeking, including: trickery, stealing, cheating, conflict, extreme measures to obtain the food, physical violence, negative portrayal of adults, negative portrayal of learning & education, and unhealthy eating.

The results of these two studies appear to show that food advertising is having the desired effect: kids who see these ads eat more snacks. I was a bit disturbed to see the behaviours in cereal ads being depicted as "drug-seeking," but having seen lots of Lucky Charms and Trix ads over the years, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised!

Do you allow your kids to eat the high-sugar cereals depicted in these ads? Have you made an effort to limit your kids' commercial-viewing time? Leave us a comment!

You can read the Yale study here. The Journal of Pediatric Health Care article can be found here.

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