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UK: Despite Statutory Restrictions, Unhealthy Foods Still Take Center Stage in Advertising for Children

A study that explored the scope of food advertising for children on UK television found that advertisements for fast food chains were quite common

One of the key motivations for the study was that food product advertising had been found in past research to influence food and caloric intake of children and toddlers aged 1-6. Advertising healthy foods had a positive impact on consumers' opinions about those foods and consumers' chances of consuming healthy foods.

A 2017 study included a review of TV commercials of 29 food categories (dairy, fast food, high-sugar foods, and more) on a variety of TV shows broadcast on 14 family channels, children's channels and other popular commercial channels in the UK, including Nickelodeon, Channel 4, Channel 5, MTV, ITV1, CiTV and more.

12.8% of all children's advertisements recorded as part of the study were for food or drink and constituted the third largest category. The second category was toys and the most common advertising category was self-promotion of channel programs. It is important to note that there was a slight decrease in the frequency of advertising of food products on British television compared to previous research in the field. Another encouraging finding was that children's channels broadcast less commercials for unhealthy food, however it is important to remember that children also watch entertainment programs on other family channels, so they're still exposed to these commercials.

But the current study shows that among the products that appear most frequently in children's and teens’ TV commercials in the UK are fast food products, far more than others, followed by sugar-sweetened cereals and low-fiber foods, chocolates and high-sugar, fat and sodium foods that researchers have classified as having no nutritional value. Low-fat dairy products ranked fourth out of the 29 food categories classified by the researchers and accounted for 8.4% of food product advertisements.

Non-sweetened fruit and vegetable products, on the other hand, accounted for only 0.9% of food product advertisements and came in place 21 out of 29. Vegetables came in lower, place 24 with an average of only 0.5%.

In general, products that do not contain basic nutritional values are advertised significantly more than foods containing nutritional values.

The sports channels advertise products that do not have nutritional value more significantly than the other channels and, moreover, children's food products were advertised more frequently during the peak hours of children's viewing than at other times and even during school holidays.

Due to such studies, many states have changed their regulations on advertising children's food products accordingly, with a view to reducing the advertisement of these harmful foods. Researchers recommend that policymakers and regulatory agencies monitor food product advertisements strictly and that food advertising may affect children even if they are not only in children's programs, but in other programs that children watch.

Further reading

Full study: Children's exposure to food advertising: the impact of statutory restrictions