The Impact of Advertising on Children’s Food Preferences

Food Adverts and Children

New data has just come out from The Local Government Association from 370 UK councils, showing that 1 in 25 children in England, aged 10-11, are now severely obese. It also found that the number of children who were classified as severely overweight rose from 15,000 in reception, to 22,000 by the time that they left primary school (The Local Government Association, 2018).

What is Defined as ‘Severely Obese’?

To define a child or an adult as either normal, overweight, or obese, we use a measurement called Body Mass Index (BMI). It measures whether your weight is appropriate for your height, calculating it by dividing your weight in kg by height squared in m, giving you your BMI range.

For adults:

  • 18.5-24.9 is normal weight
  • 25-29.9 is overweight
  • 30+ is obese

However, for children they do not conform to these ranges, and instead are placed into percentiles.

For children:

  • Overweight would be defined as children between the 85thand below the 95thpercentile
  • Obesity is defined as a BMI above the 95thpercentile
  • Severely obese has been defined as a BMI on or above the 99.6thpercentile

These percentiles are for children and teens of the same age and sex.

So, What Does This Mean?

Due to the health risks associated with obesity, The Local Government Association want councils to have a say in where and how the soft drinks levy is spent; improved labelling on food and drinks products; and for councils to have the power to ban junk food advertising near schools (The Local Government Association, 2018).

What Impact Does Advertising Have?

In this blog, we are looking at how advertising can impact a child’s preference of food choice, and whether it has any implications to their health. It’s not just advertising that impacts a child’s risk of obesity, however, for the purpose of this blog, this is the area that we are going to focus on. Food advertising, usually, is based around energy-dense, but nutrient-poor foods (Boyland and Whalen, 2015).

In 2014, £256 million was spent by the UK food industry on the promotion of ‘unhealthy’ foods in retail alone (Public Health England, 2015). This report also concluded that food advertising for children is everywhere, and that children enjoy engaging with food promotions, with these adverts influencing their preferences, behaviour and consumption. Many food products have 'characters' which play a role in the advertisement of the product. These characters may increase the preference for these foods in children ages 2-7 (Public Health England, 2015). There is now also an increase in children’s favourite licensed (endorsed) characters appearing on food products, making children want the product even more.

In the UK, children are seeing up to 12 adverts for junk food an hour when watching TV, and up to 9 in half an hour shows. The TV shows that they are watching aren’t just intended for children, but are family TV shows, where advertising restrictions don’t apply between 6-9pm. In 2010 the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom set that foods and drink which are high in fats or sugars or salts (HFSS) are banned from being aired on or around TV shows from children, or programmes where 75% of the audience are children. However, there are calls for this to be updated, so that advertising between TV shows from 6-9pm are also included in this ban (The Guardian, 2017).

According to a Public Health England survey, children aged 4-10 years in England have already consumed more than the recommended amount of sugar for the year and it is only mid-June (The BBC, 2018).

What are Unhealthy Foods?

This term includes foods which are high in sugar, salt and/or fat which are sold in the UK. It includes: chocolate; non-alcoholic drinks; confectionary; snacks; desserts; ice cream; cakes; biscuits; sweet and savoury pancakes; processed meat products; and condiments (Public Health England, 2015).

Cacao and creamed coconut hummus

Research Around the Impact of Advertising

Over the years, marketing for food products has become more sophisticated and adapted to the development of technology. It has been shown that food marketing increases a child’s immediate and future consumption. Food brand preference can be influenced by product placement and advergames (Lapierre et al., 2017). Advergames are games which contain advertisement within them. A systematic review and meta-analysis found that when those aged 2-18 were shown unhealthy food (HFSS) and beverage marketing, this influenced their dietary intake and also their preferences, during and shortly after being exposed to said advertisement (Sadeghirad et al., 2016).

One study looked at those children who watched a movie with a high product placement of unhealthy foods, versus those who watched a movie with low product placement of unhealthy foods. It was found that those who watched the high product placement were more likely to choose the product in comparison to those who watched the low product placement. The most interesting part of this study is that children’s weight status did not significantly affect their choice of snack (Brown et al., 2017). We will go into why that last sentence is important in the section weight bias.

Do 'Characters' Impact a Child’s Preference for Food?

A systematic review on children under 12 years looked at the influence of food companies’ mascots and entertainment companies’ media characters influence on child’s food preference and behaviour. They found that cartoon media characters can positively increase a child’s preference and intake of fruit and vegetable. They also found however, that media characters, especially those that are familiar, also impact children’s food preference for energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods. This was found to be more powerful than the impact on fruit and vegetable intake (Kraak and Story, 2015).

It is not just advertising that impacts and influences a child’s food preference. In Quebec, food advertising has been banned since the 1980s. However, there is no difference in obesity rates there compared to other provinces in Canada. Sweden also implemented an advertising ban, and this has not shown to have impacted and reduced obesity rates (Ashton, 2004). There are other factors which impact the food preference and choice a child makes, and therefore this article is just discussing one area of a complex topic.

Weight Bias

However, something that we should ensure we are not taking part in, when looking at both children and adults’ health, is weight bias and stigmatisation in regard to obesity.

We should not be focusing solely on a child’s weight alone to indicate their health. In the study by Brown et al., 2017, we saw that a child’s weight did not impact their choice of snack, and the choice was universal regardless of weight. This blog isn’t just looking at children whose BMI may be in the overweight or obese category, but the influence that marketing and advertising have on all children.

So, what is weight bias? This is something where individuals face negative attitudes and beliefs about themselves, due to their weight. These are based on stereotypes and prejudice towards people, especially those who are overweight or obese. This weight bias can then develop into obesity stigma.

Obesity stigma is actions against those who are classified as obese and can cause exclusion and marginalisation (World Health Organization (WHO)). Children with obesity experience a 63% higher chance of being bullied (WHO). This may be due to the oversimplification on what causes obesity. This creates the idea that there are simple solutions which lead to long lasting sustainable results, with the expectation that there should be no difficulties when making behavioural changes. This as we know, is not the case.

This oversimplification ignores the biological, social and environmental factors that individuals experience (WHO), leading to weight bias, stigmatisation and therefore bullying of those who may be classed as obese. WHO also mentioned that European studies found that the media place emphasis on the individual being responsible.

When obesity is discussed it is usually fat-shaming. It is an attempt to motivate individuals to change their behaviour, however, this instead can cause an increase in stress, and may lead to people overeating and avoiding physical activity. Bias and stigmatisation can cause increased risk of depression and anxiety, suicidal thoughts, poor body image, disordered eating, and a decrease in self-esteem and self-confidence, avoidance of medical care in times of need, and avoiding physical activity.

It is important, therefore, when we are addressing the risks of obesity we are not discriminating against children with obesity or stigmatising or bullying. We should be promoting body confidence and positivity, whilst also promoting physical activity and a healthy diet.

We shouldn’t be making children scared of food, and altering their relationship with food, stigmatising their bodies, which could cause an eating disorder. Children as young as 2 are being involved in weight-related talk. It has been found in one study that 40.7% of 16-year-old girls, had some form of disordered eating behaviours, whether it was fasting, purging or binge eating (Bould et al., 2018). Something that we should stress, is that these foods which are HFSS aren’t going to kill you within moderation. When consumed as part of a balanced diet, with a variety of foods and colours, you’ll be provided with all the nutrients we need as humans to grow and function. Along with the way we lead our lifestyle, and take care of our wellbeing, we are helping to maintain our health.


Health Promotion Without Weight Stigmatisation

From above we can see that it is vital that we ensure that we are engaging both children and adults alike in health promotion which doesn’t involve the stigmatisation of their weight. As we know from the above by WHO, this can lead to the opposite of what is intended as help.

What we need to do is make sure that individuals, and especially children, are empowered to lead a healthy lifestyle, by taking part in physical activity, getting their 5 a day in, and drinking water. The control of advertising HFSS food after 9pm could have an impact on helping to not influence a child’s food preference, but this is not the only area which we need to look at to help children follow a healthy lifestyle. It's important to not just focus on weight alone, instead to nurture a healthy relationship with food.

Daisy, MSc PGDip ANutr, is a Registered Associate Nutritionist with a Master's Degree in Public Health Nutrition, and a Post Graduate Diploma in Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition, both of which are Association for Nutrition (AFN) accredited. She, also, has a BSc degree in Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience; and has completed an AFN accredited Diet Specialist Nutrition course.

Daisy has worked for an NHS funded project, the Diabetes Prevention Programme; and shadowed a nutritionist in Harley Street. 

About Lucy Bee Limited

Any information provided by us is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease. We always recommend referring your health queries to a qualified medical practitioner.

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Ashton, D. (2004). Food advertising and childhood obesity. Available here.

The BBC. (2018). Children in England consuming ‘twice as much sugar as recommended’. Available here.

Bould et al., (2018). Do disordered eating behaviours in girls vary by school characteristics? A UK cohort study. Available here.

Boyland, EJ. And Whalen, R. (2015). Food advertising to children and its effects on diet: review or recent prevalence and impact data. Available here.

Brown et al.,.(2018). Influence of product placement in children’s movie’s on children’s snack choices. Available here.

The Guardian. (2017). Children seeing up to 12 adverts for junk food an hour on TV, study finds. Available here.

Kraak, VI. And Story, M. (2015). Influence of food companies’ brand mascots and entertainment companies’ cartoon media characters on children’s diet and health: a systematic review and research needs. Available here.

Lapierre, MA. Fleming-Milici, F. Rozendaal, E. McAlister, AR. And Castonguay, J. (2018). The effect of advertising on children and adolescents. Available here.

Local Government Association. (2018). 22,000 children severely obese when they leave primary school. Available here.

Public Health England. (2015). Sugar Reduction: The evidence for action. Available here.

Sadeghirad et al.,. (2016). Influence of unhealthy food and beverage marketing on children’s dietary intake and preference: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. Available here.

World Health Organisation. Weight bias and obesity stigma: considerations for the WHO European Region. Available here.

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