Youngsters 2 to 7 years old see a dozen food ads a day, researchers said Wednesday, and nearly half of the commercials aimed at children 17 and younger are selling candy, snacks, soda or fast food. The review of more than 8,800 ads by Indiana University and the Kaiser Family Foundation couldn't find a single commercial for fresh fruit or vegetables.
The Kaiser authors didn't call for policy changes. Nonetheless, the results are likely to add to the growing pressure on advertisers and networks to cut back on the promotion of junk food before regulators do it for them.
"If there's no progress, that's certainly what faces the industry at the end of the day," Adonis Hoffman, senior vice president of the American Assn. of Advertising Agencies, said after the report's release.
The study follows a 2005 report by the federally funded Institute of Medicine that tied food commercials to childhood obesity. In December, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended a ban on junk-food ads during programs for young children.
Ten of the largest food and beverage advertisers, including Coca-Cola Inc., PepsiCo. and Kellogg Co., agreed in November to adopt new rules on advertising to children. The companies are to announce by August details of how they will implement the rules.
The voluntary program, however, allows a lot of leeway. For example, participants are expected to promote healthy diet choices or lifestyles in half their ads. But they can slip these messages into commercials for candy bars or chips, said C. Lee Peeler, chief executive of the National Advertising Review Council and a leader of the program.
The new study was intended to satisfy policymakers who wanted to know "how much food advertising children see on TV, for what types of food, and what types of appeals are used to market those foods to them," said Kaiser's Vicky Rideout, a co-author of the study.
"Childhood obesity isn't just the latest hot topic," Rideout said. "It's a very serious problem that's having a devastating effect on the lives of millions of children and families in this country, and that could impact our country's healthcare system for many years to come."
Among food ads aimed at children and teens, the most common are for cereal, at 29%. Fast-food restaurants and candy each make up 10%. Gum accounts for 9%, dine-in restaurants 7% and fruit roll-ups 6%.
Media companies have issued varied responses to the drumbeat on obesity and advertising.
Walt Disney Co.'s Disney Channel carries no conventional advertising, and the company won plaudits recently for a plan to limit the licensing of its characters to promote children's foods that are high in fat and added sugar.
The channel also runs brief programs teaching exercise to preschoolers, and plot lines about nutrition have been central to episodes of such hits for older children as "That's So Raven" and "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody."
But Disney's ABC Family cable network runs nearly seven minutes of food ads during each hour of children's shows, compared with less than four minutes on rival Viacom Inc.'s Nickelodeon, according to the study. The flagship ABC network runs more food ads aimed at children than CBS, NBC or Fox, researchers found.
Nickelodeon, which targets mostly children, has promised to devote 10% of its airtime to promoting healthy behavior.
Public-service announcements, meanwhile, have a limited presence. Children see only one message about nutrition or fitness every two or three days, the study found, while teens see just one a week.
At a panel discussion after the Kaiser study's release, Dale Kunkel, a member of the Institute of Medicine's committee on the marketing of food to children, said the report was significant for its overall picture of the advertising landscape.
The "slow, cumulative drip, drip, drip" of ads has a greater effect on children than individual commercials, said Kunkel, a University of Arizona communications professor.
Assn. of National Advertisers lobbyist Dan Jaffe said many advertisers already had begun promoting healthier lifestyles.
"The total advertising community, the total food community, is tremendously committed to taking major steps -- unprecedented steps -- to respond to the obesity problem," Jaffe said.
Menn reported from Los Angeles. Schreck reported from Washington.
From the April 9, 2007, Prepared Foods e-Flash