Television Advertising and Childhood Obesity, Part 4

Kill Your TV

Nothing can make you feel as smart as a page full of numerical trivia. That’s why Harper’s Index has so many fans among the magazine’s readers. This information comes from an old clipping. Way back in 1983, the average child in America had been tempted by only $2.98 worth of advertising in a year. Next, the diligent researchers ferreted out the fact that by 1998, a mere 15 years later, the monetary amount of direct advertising poured into the head of each and every child was an astonishing $36.60.

This is interesting from a childhood obesity angle because new figures have accumulated since then. “Facts About Marketing To Children” starts off with the lowdown on today’s astronomical budget devoted to making kids make their parents buy stuff:

Advertising directed at children is estimated at over $15 billion annually — about 2.5 times more than what it was in 1992… Over the past two decades, the degree to which marketers have scaled up efforts to reach children is staggering. In 1983, they spent $100 million on television advertising to kids. Today, they pour roughly 150 times that amount into a variety of mediums that seek to infiltrate every corner of children’s worlds.

So, how much would that be per kid? It was $2.98 then, and 150 times as much now, $447. Can that be right? Somebody is paying nearly $450 a year to put ideas into our children’s heads? That’s a lot of money. There are probably school districts that spend less per year per child. Tell you what. Give me the $450, and I’ll tell the kid to buy Frosted Chocolate-Covered Bacon (wink).

This Toaster Strudel TV commercial is relatively mild. The kids are eating the product with evident enjoyment, although they don’t say anything. In a slightly more verbal Tyson Chicken Nuggets ad, the kids name a couple of things they don’t like, and several of them eat these nuggets enthusiastically. This Pizza Hut ad extols the “sweet taste of defeat,” with child actors, of course. The premise is, the coach takes the team out for pizza after a tough loss. Subliminal message: When you encounter a setback or disappointment, comfort eating is the answer.

Other commercials, like “Give the Cool Whip, Get the Love” are quite blatant, not only using kids but appealing to the parents’ need to be loved. Really, some of these commercials are almost pornographic in their inherent manipulativeness. Subliminal message: If Mommy doesn’t buy you Cool Whip, she doesn’t love you.

Last year, researchers at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity rounded up some kids and — well, let the media spokesperson Andrea Wilson tell it:

In one experiment, seven- to 11-year-old children who watched a cartoon that included food commercials ate 45 percent more snack food while watching the show than children who watched the same cartoon with non-food commercials.

From this, they extrapolated that watching just half an hour of commercial TV every day can inspire a child to eat enough snacks to put on 10 pounds a year. That’s impressive. Then, once she or he is all fattened up, another division of the same corporation can sell plenty of special slimming food.

The really scary part is, it works on grownups, too. If you watch the kind of TV that includes food advertising, chances are you’re eating more snacks than an un-brainwashed person would. The other scary part is, it doesn’t even have to be the same food that’s in the commercial. A person with the eating urge will scarf down anything in sight. But it doesn’t matter! For the companies that will later sell you the canned reducing diet, it’s all good.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Facts About Marketing To Children,” New American Dream
Source: “TV Food Advertising Increases Snacking and Potential Weight Gain in Children and Adults,” Yale Office of Public Affairs & Communications, 07/01/09
Image by Mikol, used under its Creative Commons license.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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