Television commercials for children's foods and drinks that are aimed at parents may misrepresent nutritionally poor, sugar-laden products as healthy, a new study suggests.
In the study, the researchers looked at commercials for children's packaged foods and beverages that aired on TV in the United States between 2012 and 2013. The researchers split the ads into two categories: those that targeted children and those that targeted parents, based on the characteristics and themes of the ads. For example, ads that were animated were classified as targeting kids, whereas those that portrayed family bonding were classified as targeting parents.
The researchers found that the ads that targeted parents tended to feature messages about health, and images of active lifestyles. For example, ads for sugar-sweetened drinks often touted the drinks as having "40 percent fewer calories than most regular soda brands," according to the study.
In contrast, ads that targeted children tended to focus on the themes of fantasy, coolness and the taste of the products.
By using this two-pronged approach to marketing to parents and kids, food-manufacturing companies may be trying to increase the chance that their products will be purchased, said study author Jennifer A. Emond, an instructor at Dartmouth College's Geisel School of Medicine. [10 Ways to Promote Kids’ Healthy Eating Habits]
"They are marketing to kids with ads that likely increase pestering from the child for the products, so they get the child excited about the product," Emond said. As a result, the children may be more likely to ask their parents for the product when they see it in the store, she said.
"But then they are marketing to parents with a separate set of ads that promote nutrition and a healthy lifestyle," in what might be the hope of preventing the parents from feeling guilty about buying this product for the child, Emond told Live Science.
This approach to marketing to both kids and parents is concerning when it comes to those children's foods and beverages that may not be that healthy, Emond said.
In their study, the researchers also looked at the proportion of the commercials' airtime that targeted parents. Of more than 3,000 hours of total airtime devoted to these commercials over the course of the year, about 42 percent was dedicated to ads that targeted parents, the researchers found. (The remaining 58 percent airtime was dedicated to ads that targeted kids.)
The researchers were surprised at how much of the airtime was dedicated to parents, Emond said.
"I think it is important for parents just to be aware that they are a target audience and they are being marketed to, just like kids," Emond said.
The new study was published today (Nov. 9) in the journal Pediatrics.