Consumer Group Blasts TV Food Ads Aimed at Children


Nine of 10 food commercials on Saturday morning television promote sugar-coated cereals, candy bars and other low-nutrition products of the type that health experts believe American children should avoid, a new study reported Monday.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, said it counted 222 food commercials on five Washington-area television stations during a four-hour period. The ads ran on affiliates of the ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox networks and the Nickelodeon cable channel.

Only eight of the ads featured “reasonably nutritious products,” the report found, while more than 90% promoted heavily sugared cereals, candy, chocolate syrup, cookies, chips, fast food and other low-nutrition products.


With the exception of one commercial that advocated a well-balanced breakfast, not a single ad encouraged children to eat less fat, sugar and salt or to consume more fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods, said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the center.

“While many American adults are waking up to good nutrition, marketers continue to promote lousy eating habits among children,” he said. Such practices lead to tooth decay, obesity and heart disease, the report said.

In the study, a food product was considered nutritious if it derived 35% or less of its calories from fat, 25% or less from refined sugar and contained no more than three milligrams of sodium per calorie.

Jacobson said “junk food” advertising on children’s television is partly responsible for a reported 54% increase in obesity among elementary schoolchildren and a 39% increase among adolescents during the past 20 years.

The study criticized two examples of what it characterized as misleading ads. A commercial for Froot Loops cereal contended that the product’s taste comes from “big fruit,” yet it contains only a minute amount of fruit flavoring, the report said. An ad for orange-flavored Hi-C depicts a weightlifter who supposedly derived his strength from the product, which contains less than two tablespoons of real fruit juice per serving, it said.

In addition, the report stated that 118 of the 222 ads featured products with additives known to cause adverse reactions or linked to cancer and some artificial food dyes.

The situation has worsened over the years, Jacobson said, noting that in 1976 ads for high-sugar cereals outnumbered ads for low-sugar cereals 5 to 1. Today, the ratio has jumped to 17 to 1.

“The high-sugar cereals we saw advertised all contain one-third to one-half sugar,” Jacobson said. “They ought to be called breakfast candies, not cereals.”

In 1977, the center and another private group, Action for Children’s Television, urged the Federal Trade Commission to halt the advertising of high-sugar foods on children’s television. Congress blocked reform attempts, however, arguing that such regulation was beyond the FTC’s jurisdiction.

But now the center has found an ally in Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who said he has contacted Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan and other officials to study how food products promoted by children’s TV ads measure up to diets recommended in government agency guidelines.

“Clearly, the industry needs to do a better job of self-policing,” Wyden said. He recommended that broadcasters and advertisers agree to sponsor more public service announcements and programming encouraging children to eat healthy food products.

Junk-Food Ads The majority of 222 food commercials aired during four hours of Saturday morning television on five local Washington stations pitched sugar-coated cereals, candy bars and other low-nutrition products that health experts believe children should avoid. Here are the commercials, and their number, by food categories:

Cereal: 83

Fast food: 40

Candy: 37

Drinks/chocolate syrup: 27

Cookies: 20

Entrees/canned pasta: 8

Chips: 6

Balanced breakfast ad: 1

Source: Center for Science in the Public Interest