Moms manipulated into buying their kids unhealthy food, study says

Story highlights

  • A new study finds that nearly half of advertisements for children's foods and beverages target parents
  • Ads targeting parents often promote health benefits of products that do not meet federal health standards

(CNN)Children are treated to a buffet of television ads for juice drinks, cereals and snacks that feature fun characters and humor. And parents see almost as many commercials for children's food products, but their ads promote nutrition and family togetherness, according to a new study.

Researchers looked through a database of all the TV advertisements for packaged foods and beverages in the United States between 2013 and 2014. They singled out the products intended for children as those advertised on Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and other kids' channels, and then looked for ads for these products that aired on other channels.
    The researchers concluded that 25 of the 51 food products intended for children were also advertised specifically to parents during the period, based on the fact that the ads featured scenes of parental figures and children playing, hugging or kissing. Of all the airtime that ads for children's food products got, parents were targeted 42% of the time.
    "It is a dual-pronged approach where food manufacturers are targeting kids to pester (their parents) for these products, and then manufacturers are marketing to parents to get them to think these products are healthy and not to feel guilty about buying them," said Jennifer A. Emond, epidemiology instructor at Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine. Emond is the lead author of the study, which was published on Sunday in the journal Pediatrics.
    While the ads for these products on children's channels were more likely to focus on fun and humor, and include animation or mascots for the brand, the parent-directed ads emphasized health benefits and nutritional information for the products.
    However, a recent report from University of Connecticut's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that many of the products that are advertised to children, such as sugar-sweetened juice beverages and cereals, do not meet federal standards for healthy snacks. And, as Emond pointed out, the ads that parents are seeing are for these same products.
    Although the findings of this study are concerning, they are not surprising, said Corey Basch, associate professor of public health at William Paterson University, who was not involved in the study. "We are seeing an influx of advertising aimed at parents for a wide array of products, including food and beverages, toothpaste and vitamins," Basch said.
    "This is a sad situation when it takes so much energy to sift through false claims and to determine which products are actually healthful ... advertising claims, especially when they are unsubstantiated, can certainly lead parents astray," Basch said.
    Emond and her team did not look at whether ads directed at parents influenced what they purchased. However, they hypothesize that ads would have this effect and are looking into that possibility in their next studies.
    The current study did not include many of the unhealthy children's food and beverage products, such as potato chips and soda, which may be advertised to parents, Emond said. The researchers defined children's products as those that were advertised on channels specifically for children. However, the Rudd Center report noted that ads targeting children are also aired on general audience channels during shows that mostly children watch.
    The practice of advertising children's food products to parents could only be getting more common as food manufacturers face increasing pressure from health researchers, advocacy and federal groups not to advertise unhealthy products, Emond said. "I expect to see more parent-directed marketing in the future," she added.
    The study even hints that advertisements for unhealthy products could be shifting from kids to parents. There is increasing awareness that sugar-sweetened beverages are not healthy for kids, and 73% of the ads for these products, particularly for fruit drinks, targeted parents. The opposite was true for yogurts, which are generally considered healthy, with 74% of their ads targeting children.