As food manufacturers face increasing pressure to limit child-directed advertisements for nutritionally poor foods and beverages, parents are becoming an increasingly important target audience, according to a new study. The research, published online Nov. 9 in the journal Pediatrics, found that of all the children’s food-product ads reviewed, 42.4 percent of total air time was aimed at parents.
For the study, researchers analyzed ads for 51 children’s packaged food and beverage products that aired on U.S. network, cable and syndicated television between March 2012 and February 2013. The research team divided the ads into two categories: those that targeted children and those that targeted parents. Based on the characteristics and themes of the advertisements, findings showed that of the 51 products reviewed, 25 were targeted to parents.
Children’s ads tended be animated, contain elements of fantasy, or focus on the taste of the product. Parent-directed ads featured family bonding and conveyed messages about health, active lifestyles and nutritional values. For example, ads for sugar-sweetened fruit juices may tout the product as having fewer calories than regular soda brands. This approach, said the study authors, may divert attention from the high sugar content of the juice.
“Parents want to do the right thing,” lead author Jennifer A. Emond, PhD, a research instructor in the department of epidemiology at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine, said in an AAP news release. “You (parents) see things that are marketed as fruit-flavored, or healthy, or contains 35 percent less sugar that soda, and your first reaction might be that this is a good product and I am doing the right thing for my child.”
According to the study, products receiving the most ad airtime were foods and beverages of questionable nutritional value such as sweetened cereals and sugary drinks. What surprised the research team was the considerable portion of commercials aimed at parents. For example, 73 percent of the total ad airtime for children’s sugar-sweetened drinks – linked to childhood obesity – was designed to appeal to parents.
The researchers view the manufacturers’ approach as a two-pronged blow to healthy eating habits. “They are marketing to kids with ads that likely increase pestering from the child for the products, so they get the child excited about the product,” Emond told Live Science. This, she said, makes the kids more likely to ask for the product when they see it in the store.
“But then they (food manufacturers) are marketing to parents with a separate set of ads that promote nutrition and a healthy lifestyle” that’s geared to making parents feel less guilty about buying this product for their child, Emond added.
The bottom line according to Emond is that parents should be wary of advertising claims and pay closer attention to product nutrition. “Just be very critical and look at the ingredients and look at the nutritional facts,” she advised. “Don’t necessarily look at product packaging and advertising and believe manufacturers that these are healthy products.”