Some important news for parents dedicated to organic living and healthful eating: Research at the University of Arkansas shows that a year after major food companies announced new advertising policies to combat childhood obesity, there have been no significant changes in TV food advertisements that children view. 

Not only were unhealthful foods the most frequently advertised, but child-targeted commercials continued to employ the very production techniques and persuasive appeals that make it difficult for children to critically evaluate advertising. 

In research presented Friday at the International Communication Association annual conference, Ron Warren, PhD, an associate professor of communication, reported the results of a study that analyzed TV food advertising likely to be viewed by children. His research team compared TV commercials recorded just prior to an industry self-regulation effort announced in February 2005 with commercials recorded a year after this industry initiative. 

“Our primary conclusion is that little changed across the collection of food and beverage advertising analyzed in the two years of our sample,” the researchers note. “It appears that many advertisers selling unhealthy foods, at the very least, left their advertising practices unchanged despite a potential backlash from critics or the government.” 

According to Dr. Warren, the 2005 industry initiative was confined to commercials viewed during programming aimed at young children, such as cartoons and afternoon children’s shows. Children typically watch television during the evening primetime slots, he says. 

“The companies are very carefully defining where they will make changes, and there is no formal commitment to changing commercials offered during primetime,” Dr. Warren says. 

His team examined commercials taped between 2 and 10 p.m., the hours school-aged children are most available for TV viewing. 

“Whether we just looked at ads targeting children or if we only looked at ads on child-friendly shows, we weren’t seeing a lot of change,” he says. 

In analyzing commercials, the researchers used established findings from cognitive development research to understand how children view commercials. Typically, young children focus on information presented in visuals and sound effects. Until about 8 or 9, children have difficulty processing information from dialogue or voiceovers. 

Thus, the research team looked at how product advertisements used attention-getting devices like animation, live-action visual effects, sound effects and musical jingles. These techniques have been shown to appeal to children and to suit their processing skills. In addition, appeals that emphasize fun and happiness or that offer a premium—buy the product and get a toy—have proved effective with children. The combination of attention-getting devices and emotional appeals tends to distract young children from processing health and nutritional information about products. 

“If the advertising landscape confronting children is dominated by commercials with special effects and emotional appeals for largely unhealthy products, only older children and adolescents might be prepared to critically evaluate those messages,” the researchers conclude. 

The researchers cited a couple of “encouraging signs of change” in food advertising. Most significant was the increased use of nutritional claims, even in children’s programs. Researchers also found dairy products among the most frequently advertised products during child-rated programs, something that had not been seen in previous research. 

“If this trend develops beyond this small beginning, especially with products higher in recommended nutrients for children, then future content analyses will be able to document a significant response to the criticisms of food advertising,” the researchers conclude.