• Open Access

Trends in food advertising to children on free-to-air television in Australia

Authors


Correspondence to:
Ms Bridget Kelly, Cancer Council NSW, PO Box 572, Kings Cross, NSW 1340; e-mail: bridgetk@health.usyd.edu.au

Abstract

Objective: The issue of marketing unhealthy food to children and its contribution to childhood obesity has become a highly politicised debate in Australia. The aim of this study was to compare recent television food advertising patterns in 2008 to previously published Australian research on television advertising from 2006 and 2007, to examine any changes following policy debates.

Methods: Television broadcasting was recorded for two weekdays and two weekend days between 6:00 and 22:00 in February 2008 for all three commercial television channels. Food advertisements were classified as core/healthy, non-core/unhealthy or miscellaneous. Television audience data were obtained to determine broadcast periods corresponding to children's peak viewing times.

Results: The overall rate of food advertising decreased over time: from seven food advertisements/hour/channel in 2006/07 to five in 2008. However, the relative contribution of non-core food advertising to overall food advertising remained stable. In 2008, the proportion of food advertisements for non-core foods was significantly higher during children's peak viewing times (p<0.01).

Conclusions and implications: Australian children remain exposed to a disproportionate volume of television advertisements for unhealthy foods on commercial television, which are shown during time periods when the highest numbers of children are watching. Regulations to limit unhealthy food advertising during the time periods when a significant number of children are watching are required.

Childhood overweight and obesity is a significant public health issue. Recent research by the Australian Government, the Children's Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey, indicated that 23% of Australian children aged 2 to 16 years were overweight or obese.1 Food marketing, in particular television advertising to children, has been recognised as an important area for action in the prevention of obesity.2 The most recent systematic review to explore the correlation between food marketing and children's diet-related outcomes, commissioned by the World Health Organization, found an association between food marketing and children's food knowledge, attitudes, preferences, behaviours and health status.3 These effects were found to be significant and independent of other influences.

The National Preventative Health Taskforce, established by the Australian Minister for Health and Ageing to provide evidence-based advice to government on primary prevention strategies to tackle the burden of chronic disease caused by obesity, tobacco and excess alcohol consumption, highlighted the importance of restricting inappropriate marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children as a major strategy towards reducing the prevalence of overweight and obesity.2 Previous Australian research has repeatedly demonstrated that children are exposed to high levels of television advertising for unhealthy foods.4–8

The issue of marketing unhealthy food to children has become a highly politicised debate in Australia. In August 2009, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) released the revised standards governing television food advertising to children, following a two-year scoping and consultation period.9 At the same time, a groundswell of support for tighter food advertising regulations was demonstrated from both the public health community and the general public. This was exemplified by an advocacy campaign run by the Coalition on Food Advertising to Children, for which 20,521 postcards were collected pledging support for stronger television food advertising regulations.10

On the other hand, the food and advertising industry groups claimed that there was a lack of causal evidence linking unhealthy food advertising and childhood obesity.11,12 Methodologically, such causal evidence is difficult to attain. As the majority of children are exposed to large volumes of food marketing over their lifetimes, longitudinal studies that could prospectively link children's exposure to food advertising and their nutrition and weight outcomes are challenging.13

While the ACMA review highlighted the strong public sentiment for unhealthy food advertising restrictions, the outcomes of this review were disappointing, with few additional regulatory restrictions placed on this advertising.9 The major reason provided by ACMA for this inaction was the insufficient causal evidence of a link between food advertising and childhood obesity.14

In light of this debate, we aimed to compare 2008 television food advertising patterns, including the level, content and placement of advertisements, to previous research conducted in 20066 and 20075, in order to examine any changes in food advertising. Valid comparisons could be made between studies as an equivalent food classification and methodology were used.5,6

Methods

Sampling

Television data were recorded over two weekdays and two weekend days during February 2008, between 6:00 and 22:00, for all three Sydney commercial channels (192 hours). These data were compared to previously published data on food and beverage advertising on Sydney free-to-air (FTA) television from 20066 and 2007.5

Coding

Two research assistants scanned television data for advertisements and coded these according to predefined criteria, including the advertised product type and the time period in which advertisements were broadcast, i.e. either children's peak or non-peak viewing times. Children's peak viewing times were defined as periods where the number of children watching television (all analysed channels combined) was greater than a quarter of the maximum child audience rating for the day. This was based on Australian television audience measurement (OzTAM) data for the average child audience viewing pattern over the previous year (2007), given separately for weekdays and weekend days. Peak viewing times were distinguished as from 7:00 to 9:00 and 15:30 to 22:00 on weekdays (8.5 hours/day), and 7:30 to 10:30 and 15:30 to 22:00 on weekends (9.5 hours/day). Audience numbers for children aged 5 to 12 years during peak viewing periods corresponded to between 20,000 and 87,000 children, compared to between 3,000 and 18,000 during non-peak viewing times.

Food and beverage advertisements were categorised as either Core/Healthy; Non-core/Unhealthy; or Miscellaneous, and further sub-divided into 25 food categories (Table 1). Food categories were based on food groups outlined in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating,15 and on food classification systems used in previous research examining food advertising to children.5,6

Table 1.  Rate of advertising (advertisements per hour per channel) for food categories by year.
 Rate/hr/channel
Food groups200620072008
Core food groups2.42.02.0
Dairy0.60.70.7
Soups (<2 g fat/100 g), salads and sandwiches, frozen meals (<10 g fat/serve), and low-fat savoury sauces
(<10 g fat/100g)
0.60.10.2
Low sugar and high fibre breakfast cereals (<20 g sugar/100 g and
>5 g dietary fibre/100 g)
0.50.10.3
Meat and alternatives (not crumbed or battered) (includes fish, legumes, eggs and nuts and nut products, including peanut butter and excluding sugar coated/salted nuts)0.30.10.1
Breads, rice, pasta and noodles0.20.00.4
Fruit and vegeTable products, no added sugar0.20.00.2
Baby foods (excluding milk formulae)0.00.00.1
Bottled water0.00.00.0
Non-core food groups3.73.42.4
Chocolate and confectionery1.00.60.5
Fast food restaurants/meals0.91.20.8
High sugar and/or low fibre breakfast cereals (>20 g sugar/100 g or
<5 g dietary fibre/100 g)
0.50.70.3
Snack foods, including chips, extruded snacks, popcorn, snack/muesli bars, sugar sweetened fruit and vegeTable products, and sugar coated/salted nuts0.40.40.1
Cakes, muffins, sweet biscuits, high-fat savoury biscuits, pies and pastries0.30.10.1
Sugar sweetened drinks including soft drinks, cordials, electrolyte drinks and flavour additions0.20.10.3
Fruit juice and fruit drinks0.20.10.0
Alcohol0.10.10.1
High fat/sugar/salt spreads (excludes peanut butter), oils, high-fat savoury sauces (>10 g fat/100 g), meal helpers and soups (>2 g fat/100 g tinned and dehydrated)0.10.10.1
Crumbed or battered meat and alternatives and high-fat frozen meals (>10 g fat/serve)0.10.00.1
Ice-cream and iced confection0.10.00.1
Frozen/fried potato products (excluding crisps)0.00.00.0
Miscellaneous food groups1.31.70.5
Vitamin and mineral supplements0.50.70.1
Supermarkets0.20.70.3
Tea and coffee0.20.30.0
Recipe helpers0.20.00.0
Baby and toddler milk formulae0.20.00.0
Total food advertisements7.37.05.0

The use of persuasive marketing techniques in food and beverage advertisements was also assessed. This included the frequency of food advertisements containing promotional characters, including celebrities, branded characters, licensed characters and sports figures; and premium offers, including giveaways, competitions, contests, vouchers and rebates.

Inter-coder reliability was assessed using a random one-hour test sample of television data to determine agreement between research assistants on the frequency and type of food and beverage advertisements. Reasonable agreement was demonstrated for the coding of advertisement type (as either food or non-food), with 87% agreement between research assistants. Perfect correlation (100%) was achieved for the coding of advertised food products into pre-defined food categories.

Analysis

Data were analysed descriptively overall and for different broadcast periods using SPSS version 14.0 for Windows (SPSS, Inc, 2004). The rate of advertisements (per hour per channel) for overall food and non-core food were calculated and compared to 2006/07 data. Pearson chi-square tests were applied to determine significant differences in the proportion of overall food and non-core food advertisements for different viewing periods and use of persuasive marketing techniques. Results were considered significant at the a 0.05 level.

Results

Trends in overall food and beverage advertising

The proportion of television advertisements that were for food and beverages decreased over the three-year period; from 26% in 20066 and 25% in 20075 to 15% in 2008. Similarly, the overall rate of food advertising decreased over time, from seven food advertisements per hour per channel in 2006 and 2007 to five in 2008.

As well, the rate of non-core food advertising decreased, from almost four non-core food advertisements per hour per channel in 2006 to two in 2008 (Table 1). However, the relative contribution of advertisements for non-core food and beverages to all food advertisements was similar; comprising 50% in 2006, 48% in 2007 and 49% in 2008.

Fast food restaurants/meals were the most frequently advertised food groups in both 2007 and 2008. One advertisement for fast food restaurants/meals was broadcast on each channel every 50 minutes in 2007, and every 75 minutes in 2008. Chocolate and confectionery was the most frequently advertised product category in 2006, with one advertisement for these products every hour, followed by fast food restaurants/meals, with one advertisement every 67 minutes.

Food and beverage advertising during children's peak viewing times

In 2008, the rate of overall food advertising was equivalent during both children's peak and non-peak viewing times; at five food ads per hour per channel. However, the proportion of food advertisements that were for non-core food products was significantly higher during children's peak viewing times (57% vs. 47% during non-peak times; χ22=9.26, p<0.01). Similarly, in 2006/07 (combined data), the proportion of food advertisements that were for non-core foods increased during children's peak viewing times, from 56% overall to 61% during peak times.16

Use of persuasive marketing techniques in food and beverage advertising

Overall, 14% of all food advertisements contained premium offers and 18% contained promotional characters in 2008. The majority of food advertisements using persuasive marketing techniques were for non-core foods; 70% of those using premium offers and 54% of those using promotional characters (Figure 1). By comparison, 7% of food advertisements had used premiums offers and 21% used promotional characters in 2006/07. As demonstrated in the current study, these persuasive marketing techniques were more frequently used in advertisements for non-core foods, with non-core foods comprising 85% of those advertisements using premium offers and 54% of those using promotional characters.

Figure 1.

Proportion of food advertisements containing persuasive marketing by food category and year.

During children's peak viewing times in 2008, there was a higher proportion of food advertisements containing premium offers compared to non-peak times (16% vs. 12%) (ns). There were a similar proportion of food advertisements containing promotional characters during both children's peak viewing times and non-peak times; 18% and 17%, respectively. However, during children's peak viewing times, the proportion of food and beverage advertisements using promotional characters that were for non-core foods was significantly higher (57% vs. 50% during non-peak times; χ22=10.31, p<0.01). In 2006/7, persuasive marketing techniques were used disproportionately during children's peak viewing times, with 9% of food advertisements using premium offers during peak times compared to 5% during non-peak viewing times (p<0.001), and 23% using promotional characters during peak times compared to 20% in non-peak times (p<0.5).16

Discussion

While a reduction in the proportion of advertisements for food on television in 2008 compared to the previous two-year period was identified, the proportion of advertisements for unhealthy/non core foods relative to overall food advertising remained stable. During children's peak viewing times, the proportion of food advertisements for non-core foods was also significantly higher than during non-peak viewing times; a finding which is consistent with previous food advertising research16. Furthermore, during children's peak viewing times, the proportion of food advertisements using premium offers almost doubled from 9% in 2006/716 to 16% in 2008.

Across all years, fast food restaurants, chocolate and confectionery were some of the most frequently advertised food groups. There were some differences in the contribution of different food groups across years. Also of note, in 2008 the rate of advertising for sugary drinks increased to 0.3 advertisements per hour per channel, representing a three-fold increase since 2006. However, this difference may be due to seasonal variations in advertising schedules, as previous data were collected in autumn (May).

Australian children remain exposed to a disproportionate volume of television advertisements for unhealthy food and beverages, which are shown during viewing periods when the highest numbers of children are watching and use child-oriented persuasive marketing techniques. Although the absolute number of food advertisements has decreased over time, food advertisements continue to be skewed towards the promotion of unhealthy products.

Differences are evident in the timing of data collection periods between study years; however all data collection periods excluded large sporting events and low rating (holiday) periods, to represent usual broadcasting. While some seasonal differences in the advertising of particular food groups are possible, such as a higher frequency of advertisements for soft drink in summer and hot fast food restaurant meals in winter, it is unlikely that advertising schedules for food products overall would differ significantly between these times.

A number of factors may have contributed to the observed reduction in overall food advertising frequency. First, the increasing scrutiny given to the issue of marketing of unhealthy food to children in Australia and internationally, which has been demonstrated by the number of policy discussions on this issue, may have resulted in an overall reduction of food advertising on television by the food and advertising industries. However, it is noteworthy that this data pre-dates the introduction of industry self-regulatory initiatives from the Australian food and advertising industries.

Second, food marketers are diversifying their use of different media channels to target children with commercial messages. A report by the Department of Health in the United Kingdom, which assessed changes to advertising expenditure for different media between 2003 and 2007, found the largest increases in expenditure for print media.17 Importantly, Internet marketing is relatively inexpensive and therefore increased use of this media would not be well reflected in expenditure data. Nevertheless, television advertising remains a significant source of food marketing to children.17 There is ongoing concern that food advertising continues to predominantly promote unhealthy foods on both FTA and subscription television, as shown in the companion paper in this journal issue by Hebden et al.18 In the present study, unhealthy food advertising was more concentrated during the broadcast periods most popular with children and used child-oriented persuasive marketing techniques. Restricting this marketing, particularly through government regulations, has been proposed as an important ‘upstream’ obesity prevention initiative to create healthier food environments.19 A vital first step in limiting this marketing is to extend statutory regulations to prohibit the advertisement of unhealthy foods and beverages during time periods when a significant number of children are watching.

Ancillary