FTC touts kids see fewer TV ads selling food, but the study is predictably bogus

In a wonderful example of an overly myopic study result, the U. S. Federal Trade Commission announced that, hurray, kids see a lot fewer food ads on TV nowadays than they used to twenty years ago. In 1977, the typical kid saw more than 18 food advertisements each day, while today they are only exposed to 13.
This announcement comes from a two-day government sponsored workshop exploring the effect of kids’ marketing on obesity and the food industry’s efforts to self-regulate advertisements.
Meanwhile, the incidence of child obesity has more than doubled in the last thirty years. Coincidence?

The coverage of this announcement in the Washington Post shows why the announcement is really so much BS — partially because the most interesting paragraph is the very last one in the article.
Here’s how they end their story on this announcement:
“While food ads may be decreasing, the study showed a sharp increase in the number of TV ads promoting other television shows. Similarly, it said that kids see far fewer ads for cereal, candy and toys — the main items that were promoted in 1977 — but more ads for restaurants and fast-food chains, movies, video games and DVDs, and for other kinds of food such as yogurt.”
Can you see where there’s a huge error in categorization in this study, one that completely invalidates the results? (somehow, why do I suspect that it’s the advertisers themselves that were the primary force behind this bogus research)
Why isn’t yogurt considered a food? Why aren’t ads extolling the virtues of sweet, unhealthy meals at restaurants like Burger King, where their CEO admits that they’re sick of healthy and are deliberately adding more unhealthy items to their menu in an effort to increase sales (I kid you not), being categorized as food ads?
I’m not a big conspiracy theorist, but it’s sure easy to be skeptical of the “protection” of government agencies when so many of them willing let themselves be led around by the nose, pulled by the corporation’s ceaseless drumbeat of profit, profit, profit.

12 comments on “FTC touts kids see fewer TV ads selling food, but the study is predictably bogus

  1. I’m not disagreeing that the research is flawed and lack a certain amount of common sense. My only thought is this, no one is forcing someone to eat a cheeseburger. Childhood obesity is certainly up, but from what I observe from those around me in my life, I would blame irresponsible parenting more than anything. If you are eating too many burgers, your child will want them too. If you don’t and they constantly want junkfood, say no. At least that’s my thought. Thanks for the heads-up.

  2. I tried, but couldn’t find the actual study on the FTC’s website. But, in reading that last paragraph, I don’t see that it was saying that yogurt wasn’t considered a food for the purposes of their study. In that last paragraph, they’re merely trying to explain what KINDS of ads children see now, versus 28 years ago. It doesn’t say that those categories weren’t included in their numbers.
    phoenix, az

  3. Dave,
    I saw the workshop links, but no links to the actual study. I think this whole post is just a misunderstanding of what was said in the WP article.
    Why is it considered “bogus research” to find out that our children may, in fact, be watching fewer food ads? The simple fact is that, for a variety of reasons, kids are watching more and more TV. The ads aren’t making them sedentary — but, watching TV is. To complain about what our children watch when they’re planted in front of the TV I think is missing the point. I feel that the big point is that they’re planted in front of the TV in the first place.
    I still feel it’s vitally important to teach our children how to be critical thinkers — to analyze everything in their environment, instead of blaming the environment around them. It’s necessary to help kids learn to “do the right thing” IN SPITE of what they see around them. So, whether or not TV is showing less food ads, kids need to have a firm grasp of what is considered to be a nutritious diet (in your home, anyway).
    Kids don’t need to be sheltered from society — they need to be taught to analyze what they experience.
    phoenix, az

  4. Thanks for your continued dialog, Alex. I didn’t say anywhere that studying what kind of advertising our children see is bogus research. I said that recategorizing types of ads so that a given category has fewer matches is a bogus research methodology (or, if I didn’t explicitly say that, it’s what I meant).
    I couldn’t agree more that it’s a bad idea to “plant your children in front of the TV”, which is why my kids watch zero TV, zero movies, zero DVDs (well, maybe a grand total of 10-20 hours/year).
    But be careful: teaching children to be critical thinkers is a vitally important idea, but only when they are cognitively ready to think at that level. Even if you ignore all the most modern research on cognitive development, Piaget himself notes that cause and effect and similar basic types of cognitive processing takes time to develop. I know a number of parents who treat their very young children as if they were mini-adults and can understand pure logic arguments and evaluate facts, but the kids can’t and it just causes disappointment and confusion in their families.

  5. Jason, are you suggesting these advertisers are wasting their money and that kids would eat the same amount of junk food without the advertising? While I acknowledge it the parent primary responsibility to make sure their kids eat healthy, that does not absolve the advertisers of their responsibility. After all we don’t allow cigarette manufacturers to advertise to children and then say it is the parent’s responsibility to make sure their kids don’t smoke.
    Advertising is meant to be manipulative (not informative) and they have it down to a science. In our society, we consider adults fair game but I think it is very sad and destructive that we consider children fair game. Yes Alex, I think it is important to teach your children to be media savvy, but as Dave pointed out kids have to reach a certain cognitive level before that can happen. Studies have shown that young children, up to the age of eight years old, cannot even distinguish advertising from regular television programming. Therefore, we have chosen not to have a television in our home.
    Advertising has gone way beyond TV these days check out your local toy store. They don’t carry just a toy stroller, toy vacuum cleaner, or toy tool set anymore, they are Graco toy strollers, Dirt Devil toy vacuum cleaners, and Home Depot toy tool sets. And don’t even get me start on licensed characters, as parent is hard to even finding things for your children that don’t have licensed characters on them. When I went looking for no-breakable dishes for my toddler, I went to a dozen stores looking for some that did not have Dora or Spiderman on them. The only place I found children’s dishes without licensed characters was at IKEA a European based chain.
    I believe it is very damaging to our society that we put profits before our children

  6. Tammy and Dave,
    Thanks for your pointing out that children are not little adults. I don’t feel that I treat my children as if they are. In teaching them to think critically, I do as every parent teaches their children anything — I approach them at their level. I do the same thing during tv shows and movies as I do for commercials — I talk about what they’re seeing and what our family thinks of it.
    The fact that small children can’t tell the difference between programming and commercials tells me that we need to have this dialogue during commercials AND the shows. However, since we mute the commercials (and, that’s my boys’ job), they tend to not watch them anyway. But, since they know when to press the “mute” button, doesn’t that indicate that they DO know at least that programming and commercials are different?
    And, these studies that show that young children don’t know the difference, is that measured before or after parents try to help them learn the difference? I think that we keep seeing studies that show us how our children react to tv WITHOUT our involvement. The common denominator, in my eyes, is parents — they need to be actively involved in their children’s activities, including watching tv.
    Personally, I see a giant box of Legos to be a far better baby-sitter than the tv.
    I guess I don’t really see the big concern over advertising food on tv — to adults or children. When I see something that I don’t prefer to watch (or, prefer my children didn’t watch), I either change the channel or turn the tv off. We’re even bantering about the idea of cancelling our satellite subscription.
    I don’t see tv as something that any of us “need.” I know it’s an old argument, but we can always turn it off. And, frankly I don’t see too much programming that is really that much better than the commercials. We’re turning off the tv more and more. I’ve also found that the programs that do offer something that I think is valuable tend to not do so much children’s advertising, anyway.
    phoenix, az

  7. While I think parents do shoulder a significant part of the responsibility in regard to these matters, I also think it’s naive to think that teaching children to be critical thinkers and avoiding television is the *most* significant part of the equation. No matter what you teach your children and no matter what television shows they watch (if any), they are still growing up in a consumer capitalist society that stresses the acquisition of things as a means toward personal fulfillment. Unless you homeschool your children and live in a rural area, children are susceptible to these cultural forces and it takes a *lot* of parenting to work against the rest of the world in a significant manner.
    Thus, while I think the proper way to raise children involves teaching critical thinking skills (my partner and I are both in academia, so our children get this whether they want to or not!) and tuning out many if not all children’s television programs, I think these are merely temporary stop-gap measures. Television is the least of our problems, and I’ve found this more and more as my children get older. I have a toddler and a fourth-grader, and while the elder son can easily enter a discussion about Marxist oppression and the perceived evils of capitalism, he’s still caught up in the superhero movie crazes and begs for a Spiderman notebook for school and wants to spend his money on things he sees advertisements for in the toy advertisements of the Sunday newspaper, or things he sees that his friends have.
    It is also true, as someone said, that no one is forcing someone to eat a cheeseburger. This is true, but the way this is phrased, the truth is obscured. Who makes the decision to eat a cheeseburger? Sometimes it is the parents because they have a lack of money and because of the ways governmental forces manipulate food prices, cheap burgers from McDonald’s are more cost-efficient than making a salad with materials from the grocery store. Sometimes it’s the children, who are taught by all kinds of advertising methods that nagging parents can get them what they want. (It’s a basic technique you can read about in any advertising book about marketing toward children.) It’s not so simple to say that all people always have the potential to be informed and conscious consumers, because that just isn’t the case. That doesn’t mean that we need to save people from themselves, necessarily, but it does mean we can’t ignore this issue on the basis of something like, “well, it’s their own fault for making bad choices.”

  8. All I know is that 1lb of oreos is a heck of a lot cheaper than 1lb of apples.
    Perhaps we should compare obesity in children with the number of children living at or below the poverty level. Paradoxically, I’ve seen very little obesity among the affluent, and even fewer skinny folks among those struggling to make ends meet.
    This seems to be a relatively new development, perhaps within just the last generation. Consequently, perhaps it’s hard to bear out with statistics. I’d be interested in seeing a study, in any case.

  9. “Poor food” is much cheaper, and in this country “poor food” consists largely of processed starch and processed dairy – not good for anybody. Too stinkin’ bad, eh? (I have an online article which talks about how to choose when to spend money on higher-quality food, when you’re on a tight budget: http://members.cruzio.com/~itifft/health/altsweets.html Naturally, Dave, cut this if you think it inappropriate. There’s no commercial content.)
    I’ve watched the TV become the “electronic babysitter” for parents who have, themselves, attention deficits, asthma, digestive problems, and all the rest of the TV-related disorders. Argh! I hear, all too often, the complaints that keeping an eye on the kid/s is too much trouble without the TV – always with a guilty grin, but argh argh! Nobody said this would be easy!
    I’m an RN and I have a sister-in-law whose slavish worship of whatever her doctors say is frightening. Now, I like and respect most of the doctors I’ve worked with, but hers are the new grads employed by the Army or Navy because they couldn’t get a real job or else they have the school debt to work off, or else they’re the control-freak martinets who never wanted to leave the service. Argh argh argh! The unsupported word of those fatuous idiots is worth far more than my documented stories and pointed questions (I dig the Socratic method because most people need help following a logical train of thought.)
    She feels BAD about letting their first kid back in their bed after getting him to “self soothe” (can I scream now??) in the other room at 6 months old!!
    And then the kids’ maternal grand-dad, a dear sweet man in his own way (who, incidentally, is a school vice-principal), coralled the 3 boys when their parents were leaving for a 1-week trip abroad, and when the kids just waved good-bye and went back to playing, said, “Boy, those are some secure kids! I know 14-year-olds who make more of a fuss!” ARGH!!
    I’m seeing them at the winter holidays; they are innately affectionate and good-natured young people, so I’m hoping that they, too, will one day be able to outgrow the shackles of their youthful environment. I just have to keep from blowing up too far in advance of that date.
    Once more, with feeling: ARRRRRGGGGHHHH!

  10. You might like the book on this book on the subject of television and children with an attachment parenting slant: “The Big Turnoff: Confessions of a TV-Addicted Mom Trying to Raise a TV-Free Kid” (Algonquin 2007).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *