A new study reveals that children were exposed to fewer TV ads for sweets and beverages in 2007, but more fast food ads (as compared to 2003).

Past studies have demonstrated that TV advertising influences the short-term eating habits of children ages 2 to 11, and some research shows ads can also influence daily dietary intake. That’s why major U.S. food companies adopted the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative in 2006, which held that 50% of child-targeted advertising would promote healthier products or good nutrition/healthful lifestyles.

But there was one significant problem: Each company had its own definition of “healthier,” according to Lisa M. Powell, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose research will appear in the September issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Here’s what the researchers found:

  • Between 2003 and 2007, daily average exposure to televised food ads decreased by 13.7%  among children ages 2 to 5 and by 3.7% among children ages 6 to 11, but exposure increased by 3.7% among teens ages 12 to 17.
  • Ads for sweets aired less often, with a 41% decrease for 2- to 5-year-olds, a 29.3% decrease for 6- to 11-year-olds and a 12.1% decrease for 12- to 17-year-olds.
  • Beverage ads decreased by 27% to 30% across the three age groups, with substantial cuts in ads for sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • But exposure to fast food ads increased by 4.7% for children 2 to 5, by 12.2% for children 6 to 11 and by 20.4% for teens 12 to 17.

Dr. Powell and her colleagues chalk up the last statistic to the power of branding. They also found a racial gap in advertising, with African-American children viewing 1.4 to 1.6 times as many food ads per day.

The researchers recommend continued monitoring of ads targeted toward children, as well as nutritional assessments for advertised products.