Despite their participation in the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a self-regulatory industry group pledged to reduce the marketing of unhealthy products to children, the food industry continues to aggressively promote its least nutritious cereals to children.
That's the troubling, but perhaps not surprising, conclusion of a new study, the findings of which were released in summarized form today by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. (The detailed findings will be presented this Sunday during the Biennial Conference of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues in Charlotte, N.C.)
Entitled "the Cereal FACTS report," the study found that although:
companies have improved the nutritional quality of most cereals marketed directly to children... they also have increased advertising to children for many of their least nutritious products...
From 2008 to 2011, total media spending to promote child-targeted cereals increased by 34 percent.
Following up on its 2009 cereal study, the Rudd Center once again examined the nutritional quality of more than 100 brands and nearly 300 individual varieties of cereal, as well as the scope of industry advertising on television, the Internet, and social media sites. Some key findings:
The good news is that the overall nutritional quality improved for 13 of the 14 brands advertised to children, with increases in fiber and decreases in sugar and sodium. And children viewed fewer TV ads for 7 of 14 child-targeted brands, including Corn Pops and Honeycomb.
The bad news is that children viewed more TV ads than ever for the remaining seven child-targeted brands, including Reese's Puffs, Froot Loops, and Pebbles. Furthermore, some companies stepped up their Internet promotion of these brands, including the launch of a new Pebbles website from Post and a doubling in banner advertising by Kellogg on child-directed websites like Nickelodeon.com. Kellogg also introduced the "first food company advergame for mobile phones and tablets targeted to children for Apple Jacks."
The study also found that companies are increasing their targeting of Hispanic children by doubling Spanish-language TV ads. Hispanic children's exposure to these ads tripled.
And of course, it's no surprise that when companies market their lower-sugar cereals like regular Cheerios, the ads are directed to parents, but when marketing the sugary stuff, kids are the target audience. On that point, Marlene Schwartz, co-author of the study and deputy director of the Rudd Center, had this to say:
While cereal companies have made small improvements to the nutrition of their child-targeted cereals, these cereals are still far worse than the products they market to adults. They have 56 percent more sugar, half as much fiber, and 50 percent more sodium. The companies know how to make a range of good-tasting cereals that aren't loaded with sugar and salt. Why can't they help parents out and market these directly to children instead?
Overall the study provides yet more proof that industry "self-regulation" in this area has yet to be truly meaningful, and we already know that efforts to federally regulate the food industry are also likely to fail, given Big Food's well-documented grip on our elected officials.
But the recent announcement by Disney that it's ditching junk food advertising for kids does give me a bit of hope. There's clearly a market of parents out there looking for companies to support them in their efforts to feed their children well -- and a growing resentment among these consumers toward companies that prey on their children with aggressive junk food marketing.
Will free market forces ever tip in favor of these consumers, forcing companies to do the right thing if only to preserve profits?
Or do you think I've taken up residence in Disney's Fantasyland?
For more information on the study, visit cerealfacts.org. You can also follow the conversation about the study on Twitter at @YaleRuddCenter with the hashtag #cerealfacts.