New Rudd Center study shows increase in candy ads targeting children

The Children's Food and beverage Advertising Initiative made a pledge in 2007 to avoid targeting children with unhealthy dietary ads. Despite this pledge, advertisements are reaching more children than before 2007, according to the Rudd Center study. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

Although Hershey, Mars and other candy companies pledged to not use “child-directed media,” as defined by the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), in their advertising, children’s exposure to candy ads has seen a 74 percent increase, according to a recent study by the Rudd Center at the University of Connecticut. 

In September, the journal ‘Appetite’ published ‘Sweet promises: Candy advertising to children and implications for industry self-regulation,’ by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

 “The food industry has, since 2007, been saying that they are going improve food marketing to kids and they’re not going to market unhealthy food anymore. However, they define advertising to children so they can basically double the amount of advertising and still comply with their pledge,” Jennifer Harris, PhD, the study’s lead author said.

The amount of candy advertised toward children is concerning due to a proven correlation between candy advertising and increases in candy purchases in households with children. 

“We have been tracking food advertising to children since 2008 and every year candy advertising has been going up,” Harris said. “While there has been less spending on soda, cookies and other products.” 

CFBAI, a voluntary system which examines food advertising and youth, made a pledge in 2007 to “promote only healthier dietary choices in child-directed media.” The pledge restricts advertising to children ages 2-11 on children’s programming networks such as Nickelodeon and Disney. 

Despite this pledge, advertisements are reaching more children than before 2007, according to the study. Expanding upon CFBAI’s pledge parameters, the study also included networks frequently watched by ages 2-14 that are not explicitly for children, such as MTV, ABC Family and Nick-at-Nite. 

“We have been tracking food advertising to children since 2008 and every year candy advertising has been going up, while there has been less spending on soda, cookies and other products. We wanted to go into more depth than that to see which companies and which products were doing it the most,” Harris said.

Popular candy brands like Hershey, Mars, Nestle and Kraft – all CFBAI members –have increased advertisement by 152 percent. On the other hand, advertising by non-CFBAI candy brands increased at a lower rate of 41 percent, according to the study.

In addition to the number of advertisements, the study included a content analysis “to look at the techniques used in the ads (such as) animated characters, silly humor, and things like that that appeal to that age group,” Harris said. 

CFBAI’s response to the study indicated that their members are “keeping their commitments,” despite the study showing  an increase in the percentage of children viewing ads. They justified this by saying they have not advertised using children-directed media.

“Looking at techniques such as animation or subjective factors, such as whether the ad includes fun/hip messaging, is a not a reliable way to determine that an ad is child-directed on such programming,” according to the CFBAI’s response.

The study notes that companies rarely disclose marketing strategies for specific target groups; publically available information-such as concentration of ad placements and content analysis of the advertisements-was used in the study. 

“The part they don’t mention is that the fact that kids are still seeing twice as many of these ads than they did before. You have to look at the two together,” Harris said. “For example, an ad for Dove chocolate which includes a woman enjoying simple pleasures is not appealing to kids.” 

“But then you take an ad for like M&M, and they also sell toys - That’s just an excuse and I think that they don’t have any explanation for that,” Harris said.

The study offers recommendations to address the limitations of the CFBAI, which include redefining the age of children to include 12 to 14 year olds. This expands the definition of child-directed media to where children 2-14 make up 25 percent of the audience.  

“The reason we do this kind of research is to raise awareness not just among researchers but also among advocates and parents and policy makers to show how in spite what the companies are saying, there is a lot that still needs to be improved,” Harris said.


Stephanie Koo is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at stephanie.koo@uconn.edu.