TV Food Messages and Children's Diets


This article originally appeared in Issue# 17

In the past few years a battle has raged in media circles about advertising directed to children, especially advertising for sugar-coated cereals and snacks.

Both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have investigated the need for regulations to govern the amount and kind of advertising to which children might be exposed.

Currently, the issue is still "under consideration" and, no matter what is decided, it will probably go to the courts for long litigation. In the meantime then, the situation, and any solution, comes back to where it started — the home. The problem of advertising directed to children is impacting families in profound ways. It requires action on many fronts.

In preparing this article we're indebted to Sr. Mary June Coan, C.PP.S., who prepared the first sections as a follow-up to a research paper for the Department of Home Economics at Fontbone College, St. Louis.


There is now a great deal of evidence to reveal the relationship between the unwholesome diet of some children and the TV commercials they watch.

On a typical Saturday morning the average child may see over 100 child-directed commercials Children see 10,000 food and beverage commercials a year -- and almost two-thirds of them are for snacks, candy and breakfast foods. Less than 2% of television commercials are for foods that promote a balanced diet, such as fruits, milk, vegetables, and cheese.

Nutritionists, dentists, doctors, and many parents claim that television nutritional messages to children are unbalanced and encourage poor eating habits and tooth decay. Support for this claim comes from the fact that by the age of two, one-half of all American children have either gum disease or at least one decayed tooth.

Joan Ganz Cooney, president of the Television Workshop and producer of Sesame Street and The Electric Company, has observed: "Children watch and enjoy commercials long before they are interested in programs, because commercials are often the best produced and most imaginatively conceived moments on television."

According to the FCC Staff Report on Television Advertising to Children (1978), "many children have difficulty in differentiating television commercials from programming, show little understanding that the purpose of commercials is to create product demand, repose indiscriminate trust in commercial messages, particularly if they are among the group that fails to recognize the selling purpose of, or otherwise understand or evaluate the commercials

Television advertising for children is developed from direct testing and observation of the child audience. Children are subjected to research techniques developed for the study of child psychology to determine the most effective way of inducing their counterparts in the nationwide audience to demand advertised products.

Dr. William Wells of the Chicago office of Needham, Harper and Steers, an advertising agency, has described some of the typical techniques used in children's commercials:

  1. Magical promises that a product will build muscles or improve athletic performance
  2. The use of music, singing and dancing
  3. The use of super-heroes
  4. Animation
  5. Peer group acceptance appeals
  6. Selling by characters who also appear in the programming
  7. Depiction of children outperforming adults

Can Anything Be Done?

The main impetus for reform has come from religious and public interest groups and from voluntary self regulation by the TV industry itself with governmental regulatory agencies (FTC and FCC) playing a mediating role. Action for Children's Television, a national organization of 11,000 concerned parents organized in 1968, directed its first efforts toward reducing violence in Saturday morning children's shows, and eliminating vitamin advertising to children. In 1977, A.C.T., along with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to ban all television advertising to children too young to understand the selling purpose and to ban advertising for sugared products to audiences including a significant portion of older children.

After reviewing the problem the FTC endorsed the following proposal the next year:

  • Ban all televised advertising for any product which is directed to, or seen by, audiences composed of a significant proportion of children who are too young to understand the selling purpose of the advertising.
  • Ban televised advertising for sugared food products directed to, or seen by, audiences composed of a significant proportion of older children, where it posed serious dental health problems or risks.
  • Require televised advertising for sugared food products not posing health risks to be balanced by nutritional and/or health disclosures funded by advertising.

The networks, advertisers, ad agencies, and their trade associations vigorously opposed the FTC proposals, claiming that the FTC had no authority to ban truthful advertising for lawful products. In addition, they contended that reducing or banning advertising on children's television would force networks to cut down on ~ programming and oblige advertisers to raise their prices.

While most agree that parents should exercise the primary role in regulating children's television viewing, the degree of parental control that can be realistically exercised is at issue especially when advertisers spend millions on slick persuasion techniques against no training for Moms and Dads on how to resist.

What You Can Do

The following are some of the ways you, your school, your church or your organization can help parents and kids cope with advertising directed to children.

  1. Suggest that your school faculty work with parents the school nutritionist to promote healthy eating habits and nutrition education. Counter influential commercials for sugared products with games, posters, projects promoting healthy foods.
  2. Examine your own eating habits in front of children. Do they see you eating fruit instead of sweets? How much of your grocery basket is empty calories or junk food?
Author Bio: 

Ralph Sommer is a seminarian preparing for priesthood in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, NY.