The Journal of the American Dietetic Association published a study from the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention in January 2001 titled: The 30-second effect: an experiment revealing the impact of television commercials on food preferences of preschoolers.
DL Borzekowski and TN Robinson, the study’s authors, sought to determine whether televised food commercials influence preschool children’s food preferences.
They divided 46 2- to 6-year-old preschool children into two groups. One saw a videotape of a popular cartoon with a commercial embedded in it. The control group saw the cartoon, but without the commercial. The children, from a Head Start program in northern California, were then asked to identify their preferences from pairs of similar products, one of which had been advertised in the embedded commercials.
Findings and Implications
They found that children exposed to commercials were significantly more likely to choose the advertised items than children who were not. They concluded that even brief exposures to televised food commercials can influence food preferences within this age group.
Further, the authors advised adults to limit preschooler’s exposure to television advertisements. They also raised a public policy issue – given the epidemic of childhood obesity – about advertising to young children.
From personal experience, both as a parent and advertising-industry professional, I believe that this age group lacks the cognitive capabilities to differentiate commercials from programming. Thus, they are exceptionally vulnerable at a time when they are forming preferences and habits that could influence the trajectory of their lives.
Hit the pause button for a moment of ethical reflection.
Kids like “fun.” (Don’t we all?) Advertisers know this and so they pack commercials targeted at kids with flashy animation, bright colors, happy music and fantasy characters. These are the tools of the trade. Advertising targeted at adults uses the same tools for the same reasons.
If the products and services being advertised are not harmful, I believe that there is nothing inherently wrong with this. We should also remember that television is a competitive marketplace of ideas. Nothing prevents anyone from using the same tools to encourage consumption of healthy foods like Popeye cartoons once did.
Late in life, I gained a significant amount of weight from eating too much unhealthy food. After nutritional counseling, I began eating virtually nothing but lean meats, vegetables and fruits. I lost eighty pounds, nine inches from my waistline, and feel infinitely better now.
However, a curious thing happened in the process. Much of the food advertising I see on TV now repulses me. What used to make me drool – gooey cheese in pizza commercials, for instance – now makes my stomach turn back-flips. Seriously, it’s such an unpleasant feeling that I must look away from the TV. Someone needs to research this phenomenon to see if a heart healthy diet is the best defense against the seductive pull of advertising for less healthy foods – among children and adults. There could be something happening on a cellular level here. When I was fat and tried to diet, the first two weeks were always the hardest. Every time I saw one of those gooey pizza commercials, it triggered cravings. Now, the opposite happens.
Anncr VO: “And now we return to our regularly scheduled programming.”