More than 84 percent of foods and drinks advertised to kids on Spanish-language television are unhealthy, new findings that one researcher called “disappointing and distressing” considering Latino children have disproportionately high rates of obesity.
Published in the Journal of Health Communication, the study examined the ad content of 158 Spanish-language television shows for children and compared them to 139 English-language shows, both broadcast between February and April 2009. The vast majority of ads targeted at kids — 84.2 percent on Spanish TV and 72.5 percent shown in English — were defined as “WHOA” products by the Department of Health and Human Services’ food rating system, and included fast food, sugary breakfast cereals or sugar-sweetened beverages.
All unhealthy food marketing aimed at kids is worrisome, as it normalizes junk food and leads to kids developing unhealthy eating habits, lead researcher Dale Kunkel tells the Inside Track. But the findings about Latino children are particularly concerning because that population already faces higher obesity rates compared to their peers.
Commercials for fast food restaurants accounted for 46 percent of kid-targeted advertising on Spanish-language television, the study found. Roughly 78 percent of Spanish-language ads used a popular cartoon character to market an unhealthy product, while characters appeared in 49 percent of English language ads.
Latino children on average spend five hours a day watching television — and Kunkel worries that all the marketing of unhealthy food is normalizing junk food for a fast-growing segment of the population, instilling unhealthy habits in children that could last a lifetime.
“Young kids develop this misunderstanding that it’s O.K. to eat sugared cereal for breakfast every day, or it’s O.K. to eat fast food all the time,” he says. “It’s all part of a big picture that shows that the advertising has adverse effects on children in several ways.”
While Kunkel says addressing food marketing is a pivotal issue for those working to reduce childhood obesity, he points out that efforts to curb unhealthy food advertising aimed at kids have fallen flat in recent years. For example, the federal Interagency Working Group on Foods Marketed to Children has yet to finalize reasonable nutritional guidelines that would serve as a voluntary model for companies to follow when marketing to kids.
Several big-name food industry companies, meanwhile, created their own set of nutritional guidelines to follow when marketing to children
. But Kunkel notes his research has found that those improvements are making less change than expected. Several reasons are that too few food companies are participating in the voluntary initiative. Also, the voluntary guidelines are only for children 12 and under, opening the door to all the marketing and advertising that is happening to adolescents, not to mention the marketing that companies can do beyond traditional media with the myriad of new technologies reaching children with social messing, smart phones and the Internet.
“It’s slightly less junky, but it’s still very junky junk food,” he says.
Other efforts to restrict the ability of food marketers to advertise unhealthy products to children are stalled, Kunkel adds. The food industry argues that its advertisements are protected by the First Amendment, and the government thus far has shown little-to-no interest in changing that dynamic.
But Kunkel believes that could change as the larger population slowly begins to understand the cost of obesity, both to the federal budget and people’s health. The government can direct commercial speech when there is “clear evidence of harm,” and the harm of unhealthy food advertisements is only to become clearer as the obesity epidemic continues.
It’s likely to take years to see change, Kunkel adds, pointing to the decades-long effort to get tobacco advertisements off the airwaves.
There are changes that could be made now — and in fact, obesity advocates might be able to make headway if they use the same tactics as food marketers. Kunkel’s research shows that just 1 percent of ads included in the study were for healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables.
“If we want to change eating habits… wouldn’t it be wonderful if we can use Madison Avenue influence to promote healthy foods?” he says.