Advertising and Children's Obesity:

In response to a rapid increase in childrens' obesity rates over the past two decades, some politicians and interest groups have called for a ban on food advertising directed at children on the argument that such advertising has contributed to the children's obesity problem.

A new study by Federal Trade Commission staff reported yesterday, however, finds that over the past 28 years there has been a significant drop in the number of food product ads viewed by children. As the Washington Post reports:

Children see significantly fewer television ads promoting food products today than they did 28 years ago, according to a new study by the staff of the Federal Trade Commission.

Today, children watch about 13 food advertisements a day on television, down from more than 18 in 1977, the agency staff said. The staff study did not address how many other food ads kids see through other kinds of promotions, including online gaming, package promotions and in-school marketing.

Overall, the drop in food ads on shows watched predominantly by children aged 2-11 was on the magnitude of approximatley 30-50%, depending on the measurement of what proportion of the audience was children. There were very large drops in children's advertising for cereal and candy products and small increases in ads for restaurants, movies, video games, dvd's, and other kinds of food such as yogurt.

The large drop in food advertising may be explained in part by the fact that much more of the television ad time today is being given over to promotional ads for other programs, as well as an increase in advertisements for products such as dvd's and video games, which either didn't exist 28 years ago or did so on a much smaller scale than today.

Moroever, my earlier research finds, somewhat surprisingly, that there has been a substantial downward trend in commercial television viewing by children during this same period, from about 4 hours a day, to a little under 3 hours, which probably explains some of the decline in viewing of ads. As parents will quickly realize, however, this drop in television viewing has been offset by a larger rise in "screen time" such as computers, video games, and dvd's and videos, such that even though kids are watching less television (and seeing fewer paid ads) they are probably engaging in more sedentary activity. This also doesn't count the important introduction of commercial-free or largely commercial-free premium cable tv such as HBO Family or the Disney Channel. There is no good evidence on the prevalence of food ads on those media.

This is the most comprehensive reseach on the question of the relationship between the purported link between food advertising and the rise in children's obesity to date. It is consistent with what some of us predicted previously that further research would likely find.

The findings were reported at a joint FTC-HHS workshop on Marketing, Self-Regulation, and Childhood Obesity. The workshop concludes today. There are call-in numbers for those who are interested in listening in to the proceedings, but cannot make it to Washington.

FTC Chair Deborah Majoras also reiterated in her remarks opening the workshop that there remains no plan for the FTC to ban food advertising on children's television, a policy decision that is reinforced by the findings reported yesterday:

In opening the workshop, FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras said it would be unwise and not viable for the agency to ban children's food advertising. However, she warned, it would also be "unwise for industry to maintain the status quo. Not only is downplaying the concerns of consumers bad business, but if industry fails to demonstrate a good-faith commitment to this issue and take positive steps, others may step in and act in its stead."

jallgor (mail):
When will someone examine this problem (and many others like it) and actually attack the real cause? Poor parenting!
7.15.2005 2:26pm
Jake (mail):
What's with the thinly veiled threat at the end of that speech? Are there any consumers who are actually concerned about food advertising, or just "concerned consumer groups" like the Center for Science in the Public Interest? Why does the industry need to make a good faith effort to discourage people from buying its products?
7.15.2005 2:41pm
I read a story recently (sorry, can't find any online links) about an intriguing new theory of a "grandmother effect." The mechanism is that all of your mother's eggs were formed in the 2nd trimester of your grandmother's pregnancy with your mother. The theory is that particular genes can be turned on or off according to the uterine environment at that time. (Lamark anybody?) Specifically, if your grandmother doesn't eat enough during the 2nd trimester, the "thrifty gene" gets turned on in your mother's eggs, and then her children will suffer from "metabolic syndrome" (or syndrome X) which consists of a cluster of one or more of type II diabetes, high cholesterol, heart attack, obesity, localization of excess fat on the belly, and polycystic ovaries (in women).

So it may be that the increases in childhood obesity that we are seeing now are a direct consequence of the practice of obstetrics during the baby boom where doctors got psycho over women who gained more than 5 or 10 lbs during pregnancy. And it is only showing up now in their grandchildren.

It serves as a good reminder that many medical practices are based on "common sense" and have no evidence as to their safety or advisibility, or based on short-term outcomes. And that a study which follows subjects for a few months or years won't be able to detect dangers that don't show up until decades later.

So maybe I'll just pass on the docs' "common sense" assumptions that advertising cause obesity.

cathy :-)
7.15.2005 3:13pm
David Welker (www):
So, if junk food advertising doesn't work and increase consumption, are marketing executives irrationally wasting tons of money?

I am not sure if statistics showing a drop from 18 to 13 food advertisements a day with presumably just as poor or worse food consumption habits by children has any significant relationship to the wisdom of regulation. 13 commercials is still quite a few, and anyone familiar with economics knows of the concept of diminishing marginal returns. If the first commercial increases the desire for junk food consumption by n%, it is likely that the second will increase it by less than n%, and the third by even less and so on. Given the availability of new competing products bidding up the price of advertising slots, one would expect that rational junk food advertisers would be willing to give up some of the less effective repeat advertising.

Perhaps the marginal difference in junk food consumption between seeing 13 and 18 commercials is rather small while the difference in junk food consumption between 0 and 13 commercials might be quite large. This is less than a 28% reduction of the least effective advertising, after all. Thus, there might be health gains to be made by removing junk food commercials from children's programming. While I do not necessarily advocate such regulation, I thought it would be useful to point that out this study has little or no relevance to the desirability of such regulation. That a small decrease in the least effective food advertising has not decreased or slowed the growth of food consumption very much would be expected.

In reality, it seems quite clear, both intuitively and theoretically, that junk food commercials increase junk food consumption. To believe otherwise, one would have to believe that advertising executives who allocate funds to pay for food commercials were irrational. Executives, at a minimum, to be rational, must believe that commercials will cause a significant number of consumers to switch to brand X from brand Y OR cause new consumers to purchase brand X (or both). However, surely advertising enticing enough to cause people to switch from brand Y to brand X is also enticing enough to cause new entrants to consume brand X. I think that is extremely implausible to think either that marketing executives are irrational or that advertising which causes consumers to switch brands does not cause new consumption as well. Thus, the inevitable and obvious conclusion: junk food commercials increase junk food consumption.

The question then is whether the reduction in junk food consumption caused by banning junk food commercials from children's advertising is worth the cost of that regulation, however one wants to measure the cost.
7.15.2005 3:24pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
My concern is a different one. I think advertisers have targeted children with junk food ads (and toy and game ads, for that matter) for 50 years.

But what IS different now is that the junk food makers have infiltrated the schools with vending machines and by getting the cafeteria to serve their offerings. Public schools are so scrapped for funds that they take the money from the junk food purveyors.

As a result, instead of drinking milk and eating nutritious meals, at least at school, lots of kids are drinking coke and eating tortilla chips and pizza.
7.15.2005 3:44pm
Zywicki (mail):
Excellent points. Surprisingly, there seems to be no empirical evidence on whether the primary effect of this advertising is to increase market demand vs. brand switching. If it is brand-switching that doesn't make it irrational though--if I sell brand A, all I want to do is sell more brand A, even if it reduces overall market demand.

Most advertising in most markets that sell primarily branded goods (such as this market) has been found to be predominantly brand-switching advertising.

If that is so, and this may not be obvious at first glance, the effect on overall market consumption is ambiguous, but there is good reason to believe that it will actually reduce demand because it will lead to increased prices. This is for two reasons. First, it increases brand differentiation, which makes demand more inelastic and allows a price increase. Second, the advertising itself is a new cost of production and prices must be raised to cover it.

It is a surprisingly complicated issue, but I think the bottom line is that what we may think of as rational or irrational behavior in this market may not be intuitively obvious at first glance.
7.15.2005 4:23pm
In reality, it seems quite clear, both intuitively and theoretically, that junk food commercials increase junk food consumption.

But you are still making an assumption, which is that all junk food consumption is bad. It may simply be that once a child (or older person) consumes an adequate amount of healthy food, that it doesn't matter whether the balance of their calories is healthy or not. If this is so and the effect of the advertising is simply to shift the healthy/junk balance in the part that doesn't matter, then calling it "junk" food is simply an ad hominum.

cathy :-)
7.15.2005 4:47pm
What happens when commercial ads that promote junk foods are banned from television? Will this drastic action remove a significant source of negative influence from the lives and minds of all-to-impressionable children? Or will it merely motivate or at least indirectly encourage the related advertisers to discover new and innovative ways of relaying their so-called destructive messages? If children spend less time watching television and more time playing video games and surfing the net, then what is stopping, once this TV ban is put in place, advertisers from shifting their preferred relaying centers to the above-mentioned media? Maybe their will be more McDonald's shops in violent video games, where weakened action stars gain regain energy by purchasing a Big Mac or twice as much energy with a Value Pack (Well, at least this will teach basic economic skills such as budgeting and cost-benefit analysis). Or maybe more candy ads will start popping up on sites that children frequent. Or maybe junkfood ads will somehow work their way en masse into adware programs, inundating children with messages of the deliciousness of fast food every time they attempt to operate their computers (but sadly cannot, since the adware slows it down tremendously to the point where the only image that comes through unabridged is perhaps the inconic Big Mac). This is mostly fantasy, of course. For now anyway. But these possibilities should make government agencies and rules committees consider the unanticipated consequences of those pesky all-out save the children campaigns. Unless these same rule-making bodies attempt to ban the same types of ads from the electronic alternatives (though that would be quite difficult to accomplish on the Internet). Then, not only are our favorite foods at stake but so is our freedom of choice to an even more considerable extent. Just some food for thought.
7.15.2005 5:06pm
Splunge (mail):
Ha ha, as a (single) parent I love the relentless every-four-minutes brain-dead screechy ADHD-style advertisement on the tube. It makes watching the thing so very unpleasant I've rarely had much trouble convincing the children it would be loads more fun to read Harry Potter or Anne McCaffery or the latest Warriors/Redwall/whatever book, or just go outside and shoot some hoops.

As long as the medium is going to degenerate into utter inanity -- and taking the long view, I think that is its destiny -- I'm all in favor of it doing so as fast and completely as possible, so it purges itself of any remaining attractiveness.

It's like my dad used to say: the trouble with smoking is not that it causes cancer, but that it doesn't cause cancer immediately. (If it did, our social troubles with it would solve themselves quite quickly.)

So I'd oppose any attempt to remediate the content of the tube for children. In the DVD era, there are no remaining virtues to broadcast TV at all -- it has become, itself, mere "junk food." Let it degenerate to unnattractive tasteless sugary mush as fast as possible, I say.
7.15.2005 5:53pm
Simplicissimus (mail):
Well, Cathy has posted with a biological alternative to advertising as a cause of the explosion of obesity. Let me suggest demographics. Mr. Lindgren will confirm that pro golfer Kevin Stadler has pretty much the same physique as his father, Craig. I've noticed quite a few, um, chunky couples with several like-bodied children in tow, but very few slim, athletic couples accompanied by children. Could it be that the slim athletic types are too busy keeping fit while the BMI-challenged are home, having more "fun?"
That's assuming there IS an obesity problem. A dramatic increase in obesity without a dramatically obvious cause should raise questions about the statistics and/or the definitions. Arnold Schwarzenegger at his fittest would be way outside the limits of the body mass index. So would an Ethiopian marathon runner. The statistical epidemic may be confirmed anecdotally every time you see a chubby kid, but I can't escape the feeling that Mark Twain is laughing at us.
7.16.2005 1:11am
Regarding Ari's comment on a mechanism within a video game to encourage healthy eating habits to some extent that already exists in one of the most popular games ever.

In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (currently being attacked by Hillary Clinton over hidden sexually explicit content) your avatar Carl Johnson can increase his health through eating at the various fast food establishments in the game.

Your physical appearance, stamina and strength all correlate with your eating habits.

Overeating fatty foods lead to a bloated gut, slow running and an inability to scale some walls and also leads to negative comments within the game by the other characters as well as trouble attracting some girlfriends (while others are chubby chasers)

Eating the available salad meals and hitting the gym daily leads to a cut, lean body, a faster running speed, better wall scaling and greater overall attractiveness.

Of course if you follow the games M17+ rating no child should ever play or even see this game to receive this embedded message on responsible nutrition (as it is coupled with the rather irresponsible social messages of copkilling, pimping, gangbanging, and general bloody mayhem).
7.16.2005 1:20am