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Excerpts

Excessive TV viewing and TV ads contribute to serious health problems among youth

This is an excerpt from Reversing the Obesogenic Environment by Rebecca E. Lee, Kristen M. McAlexander, and Jorge A. Banda.


Television advertisements are now a multimillion-dollar method of promoting the latest food product or beverage. The accessibility of a television and time to watch is also an issue for many children. Recent research suggests that children are now watching more television than ever with black and Latino children watching more television than white children (Dennison, Erb, & Jenkins, 2002; Viner & Cole, 2005). This is a public health concern because watching television typically decreases physical activity and increases the likelihood of poor dietary habits and child overweight and obesity (Gable, Chang, & Krull, 2007). For example, each additional hour of television that 5-year-olds watch on weekends increases their risk of adult obesity by 7% (Viner & Cole, 2005). Furthermore, a recent study from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that children who spend the most time watching television have higher blood pressure, regardless of body composition, compared to those who watch very little or no television (Martinez-Gomez, Tucker, Heelan, Welk, & Eisenmann, 2009). Watching television as a child can also predict future dietary habits. One recent study looked at two groups of adolescents (middle school and high school) and found that heavy television viewers reported lower fruit and vegetable intakes five years later.

Televisions are often a substitute family member for a busy household, regardless of people’s awareness of the increased health risks associated with excessive exposure. Low socioeconomic status (SES) and income levels have been linked to increased television viewing and decreased physical activity (Bennett et al., 2006; Multimedia Audiences Summary, 2003). Recent research has shown that children who watch more television are more likely to be overweight or obese and children from low-income families who have a television in their room have an even higher risk of being overweight (Burdette & Whitaker, 2005; Dennison et al., 2002). Another alarming finding suggested that children from families who watch television during meals eat more meat, pizza, salty snacks, and soda than children who do not watch television during family meals (Coon, Goldberg, Rogers, & Tucker, 2001).

Although not every family owns a computer or has Internet access at home, televisions are prevalent in American households. As more families become two-working-parent households, more children come home to empty houses, resulting in television watching that is unsupervised and excessive. Parents who are absent or are busy when at home often rely on the television to provide stimulation, comfort, and entertainment (Dennison et al., 2002). As children view more television, they are also exposed to more commercials. Food advertising accounts for nearly half of these commercials, the vast majority of which are for energy dense foods of poor nutritional content (Powell, Szczypka, Chaloupka, & Braunschweig, 2007; Stitt & Kunkel, 2008). Not surprisingly, one study found that watching food commercials cued a significantly higher commercial recall in an after-movie questionnaire for young children. The children were also allowed to freely snack while watching the commercials. Boys ate more snack foods when watching the food commercials than neutral commercials (although girls ate slightly less). Further, since the snack food was a non-advertised food brand, the increased caloric consumption was not a function of brand recognition (Anschutz, Engels, & Van Strien, 2009). The net result is an increased risk for many lifelong adverse health consequences.

Television commercials are the most prominent form of marketing in the home, with food advertisements heavily represented. These food advertisements use publicly recognizable figures, branding, and popular cartoon, television, and movie characters in order to attract a child’s attention (Coon et al., 2001). These tactics create an exciting, pleasurable experience for the viewer. Most food television commercials equate food with fun and pleasure, creating an even stronger ploy to persuade viewers to purchase and consume the product (Connor, 2006).

Public figures, ranging from athletes to musicians, are often a frequent component of television advertisements. Fast-food and beverage companies often use music and dance personalities to display their latest creation. Jessica and Ashlee Simpson, two pop music artists, have collaborated to sell Pizza Hut products, while other singers, like Britney Spears and Beyoncé, have advertised for Pepsi. Celebrity influence is a high priority for food producers, and many large corporations choose to have celebrities represent their products. The image of a popular personality can increase sales and marketability tremendously. In contrast, public figures are rarely involved with alcohol and drug-related advertisements, shying away from potentially controversial advertisements. Instead music, television, movie, and athletic personalities choose to attach their characters to safer products like fast food or soft drinks even though overconsumption of processed and fattening foods can lead to life-threatening conditions.

Food corporations have a variety of methods to target children and adolescents based on their preferences and the current culture. Branding can begin as early as preschool (Connor, 2006). Branding is an advertising tactic designed to establish product familiarity and to form positive associations with a product or company name. The goal of branding for young children is to produce recognition of company names and products, increasing the likelihood of future use as an adult. Branding can be created through a memorable musical theme or sequence of events. Often children can remember a commercial’s song or tune which can later trigger recollection of the product. The Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed parents of children six years old and younger and found that, on an average day, over half of the children under age two watch television even though the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend television viewing for children two years of age and younger (Connor, 2006; Rideout, Hamel, & Kaiser Family Foundation, 2006). To capture the attention of these young children, food producers often use cartoon, movie, and TV characters. Ronald McDonald, representing McDonald’s, and the Trix Rabbit are licensed characters that can assist in the branding process. Often these characters are cross-referenced and used in other food marketing corporation strategies. Examples of these are Teletubby Happy Meals and popular Disney characters that are used to promote fast food.

As described previously, the stimulation of gustatory processes from food pictures and the frequency of commercials and images are important among food promoters of children’s programming. Children’s television is regularly bombarded with food and beverage advertisements, with some programs being openly supported by these companies. Nickelodeon’s Nick Jr. block draws up to one million viewers ages two to five each weekday and is supported openly by advertisements (Connor, 2006). Other channels like the Disney Channel and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) are commercial free, but they still rely on corporate sponsors who supply underwriting credits. The high frequency of food-related commercials cannot be denied. A recent study found that in 96 half-hour blocks of preschool programming, Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, and PBS had a total of 130 food-related advertisements. The majority of the advertisements aimed at children were for fast food and sweetened cereals (Connor, 2006).

Regardless of whether children have access to television at home, many view televised advertisements at school. Channel One, a popular educational program in American middle and high schools, airs 2 minutes of commercials with every 10 minutes of current-events programming (Strasburger, 2006). Even if children are not exposed to food advertisements within the home, they will more than likely see hundreds of commercials in school.

A typical child or adolescent sees about 40,000 television advertisements a year despite the Children’s Television Act of 1990. This law limits advertising on children’s programming to 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays (Strasburger, 2006). Along with the high amount of food and beverage promotion, nutritional misinformation can often result (American Dietetic Association, 2006). Studies have shown that high-fat and high-sugar foods like candy, soft drinks, convenience and fast foods are most frequently advertised (Harrison & Marske, 2005; Powell et al., 2007). Furthermore, children who view junk food ads report a lower liking of healthful foods (Dixon, Scully, Wakefield, White, & Crawford, 2007).

Researchers continue to report that television food advertising increases children’s preferences for the advertised foods and their requests for those foods (Harris, Brownell, & Bargh, 2009). One study estimated the effects of television fast-food restaurant advertising on the childhood obesity epidemic and found that banning fast-food restaurant advertising would reduce the number of overweight children ages 3 to 11 in a fixed population by 18% and would reduce the number of overweight adolescents ages 12 to 18 by 14%. The effects of television advertising on childhood obesity cannot be denied (Chou, Rashad, & Grossman, 2008).

With the known negative effects of television viewing and advertisements on children, researchers have begun extensive studies of new approaches for a better understanding of how food marketing affects young people. For example, the newly developed food marketing defense model presents four necessary conditions to effectively counter harmful food marketing practices: awareness, understanding, ability, and motivation to resist (Harris et al., 2009). Food marketing defense models like these are often used to create media literacy education materials. Media literacy education and methods used to dispute unsound nutrition information are discussed later in the chapter.

The implications of children’s excessive television exposure are apparent during adolescence. Adolescents are increasingly more overweight and sedentary, leading to health problems in their youth and later adulthood (Ogden, Carroll, & Flegal, 2008). Overweight adolescents have more weight struggles, willpower issues, and family problems compared to those of normal weight (Glessner, Hoover, & Halzlett, 2006). In particular, adolescent girls may experience body image pressures perpetuated by media-generated images because both television commercials and programs often present young, thin, attractive people. The heavy reliance on television as entertainment may contribute to serious health problems such as obesity for today’s youth.

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