Australian children are bombarded by junk-food advertising at 2.4 times the rate of ads for healthy food, a study has found.
Researchers analysed more than 30,000 hours of television, including almost 100,000 food ads, captured from an Adelaide commercial network with four channels in January-December 2016.
They found spikes in so-called “discretionary food” ads during children’s prime viewing times and summer holidays.
“Australian health, nutrition and policy experts agree that reducing children’s exposure to junk-food ads is an important part of tackling obesity, and there is broad public support for stronger regulation of advertising to protect children,” lead author Associate Professor Lisa Smithers said.
“I would love to see the results of our research play a role in protecting children from the effects of junk-food advertising.”
The Adelaide University researchers calculated that children watching 80 minutes of television per day – the average amount – would see 827 unhealthy food ads each year.
Going on children’s prime time viewing alone, five to eight-year-olds were estimated to be exposed to 1100 junk food ads, amounting to 5.5 hours per year, the paper said.
Given children’s vulnerability to the persuasive content of advertising, and high exposure to television advertising, “it is not surprising that discretionary foods have become an everyday component of Australian children’s diets.”
Crunchy snacks – such as chips and popcorn – were the single biggest food-ad category on TV, followed by crumbed or battered meats and takeaway meals.
This was the first Australian study to show the seasonality of TV junk food ads. They accounted for a high of 71% of food ads in January, at the height of summer holidays, and sank to 41% in August.
On average, discretionary food advertising was 2.3 times more prevalent (than healthy food advertising) during prime viewing times for children, defined as 7am to 9am and 4pm to 10pm, the paper said.
The study, funded by the Heart Foundation, applied the largest data set ever used to examine food ads in Australia.
A systematic review in 2012 had found a number of problems with previous Australian research into food advertising, such as unrepresentative sampling, sparse data periods and surveys conducted by media organisations, the paper said.
“Diet-related problems are the leading cause of disease in Australia, and the World Health Organization has concluded that food marketing influences the types of foods that children prefer to eat, ask their parents for, and ultimately consume,” Professor Smithers said.
Globally, advertising of junk food has become a regulatory target for authorities trying to head off rising obesity.
The Adelaide university study noted that governments vary in their approach, with most preferring consumer information rather than advertising curbs.
Quebec province in Canada has opted for a strategy of completely banning all advertising aimed at children, not only for foods, and Norway has adopted a ban on energy-dense, salty, sweet and nutrient-poor foods. France requires a public message on healthy diet to accompany ads for unhealthy foods.
In Australia, health and nutrition experts have identified reducing children’s exposure to junk-food ads as a priority action for tackling obesity.
“However, Australia has no process in place to for routine, independent monitoring of children’s exposure to food advertising, and regulation of food advertising is currently via voluntary industry codes, which are known to have limitations,” the paper said.
The study is published in the current Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health Care 2018.