Kids and TelevisionIt’s a serious business to win over the minds and taste buds of youth today. In fact, the food industry spends about $1.8 billion annually on food marketing to children and adolescents, according to a review by the Federal Trade Commission. In 2006, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) was launched by food companies to promote healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles in advertisements. But it may not be enough, says Dr. Mollie Grow, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

In an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics, Grow weighs in on a study published this year about how children perceived television advertisements by two national fast food chains. According to Grow, the study shows there is room for improvement when it comes to how the food industry advertises healthier dietary choices. Many fast-food chains have agreed to standards when advertising to kids, but it seems they are not always clear to children.

In the study titled “Children’s Reaction to Depictions of Healthy Foods in Fast-Food Television Advertisements,” researchers found that advertisements don’t adequately depict healthier options to children. Many children in the study couldn’t correctly identify the healthy food items in the advertisements. Furthermore, 81% of the children participating in the study said they remembered seeing french fries in an advertisement, when the food that was shown was actually apples. That has led researchers to beg the question: Can more be done by advertisers to influence children’s dietary decisions and curb childhood obesity?

We asked Grow what findings like this could mean for kids; she answers them below.

What lessons can we learn from this study, and should more be done to promote healthy eating among children?

Grow: We can definitely continue to do more to improve the marketing landscape for kids. Currently, the most advertised foods to kids are fast food, soda, sugary cereals and snack foods. If we are going to allow food advertising to children at all (in some countries this is totally restricted), then ideally, only foods that are considered healthier choices would be in advertisements. This would include low-sugar drinks, cereals and healthier options at fast food chains.

Are you concerned about the amount of food marketing exposure children receive?

Grow: Absolutely. The investment in food marketing directed to kids has increased dramatically in the past few decades. We are all susceptible to marketing to influence purchasing and eating habits, but our children are especially susceptible. Developmentally, young children are not able to recognize advertising and older youth are more easily influenced to want to buy advertised products. That’s why it’s important that we as a society choose what is advertised to children instead of letting for-profit companies decide.

Advertising is voluntary self-regulated by the food industry, is this a potential pitfall?

Grow: Fundamentally, these companies have a conflict of interest: they want to sell as many products as possible, healthy or not. We cannot fault them for operating under free market principles to care more about profit than about children.

Can parents do anything to help children make more informed dietary decisions?

Grow: Limiting TV time and choosing TV viewing options that have no advertisements are the best strategies to decrease exposures. Having family meals, engaging kids in cooking, and modeling healthy eating help children make positive diet choices. Regarding TV, for kids under 2, we recommend no TV at all. For kids 2 and older, we recommend no more than 2 hours per day. Older youth can be taught how to be savvy about marketing and understand the nature of how advertisements try to manipulate us to buy products. Still, it’s better for teenagers to have positive parent and peer influences, active participation in school and community and to keep TV viewing to less than 2 hours per day.

What can the public do to help hold the food industry accountable?

Grow: There are two important changes we can make.

First, at a minimum, tax write-offs for marketing unhealthy foods to children should not be allowed. Currently, companies can deduct from their taxes the money paid to advertise foods to children and teens, even the unhealthy ones. That just is not fair, in my opinion. We allow companies to make profits on things that make our children sick with obesity and diabetes.

Secondly, we can do a better job regulating advertisements. Some improvements can be seen with self-regulation, but as this study showed, they do not go far enough. There are many examples of improvements to advertisements after external regulation, including restrictions placed on cigarettes and alcohol advertisements. That has worked to reduce exposure for young people and help save lives. I think we have to be vocal about how important it is for children to grow up without constant messages to eat unhealthy foods.