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11-10-2011 | General practice | Article

Advertising directly influences children’s food choice

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MedWire News: Children are more likely to choose food they have seen in television advertisements than unadvertised food, suggest study results.

"Children were clearly influenced by the commercials they saw; however, parents are not powerless," said study author Christopher Ferguson from Texas A&M International University, Laredo, USA.

He said that although the effect of advertising can be dramatic, "parents have an advantage if they are consistent with their long-term messages about healthy eating."

Ferguson and team recruited 75 children to take part in their study. The children were aged between 3 and 8 years of age and were randomly assigned to watch a short cartoon with an advert break containing an advert for apple slices with dipping sauce or French fries.

After the program finished they were allowed to choose a food coupon for either French fries or apple dippers. To assess parental influence, half the children in each group were encouraged to choose the "healthy" apple option by their parents and half were allowed to choose unaided.

As may be expected, most of the children who watched the cartoon with the French fries advert chose the coupon for French fries (21/34) and most of those who watched the cartoon with the apple dippers advert chose the apple dippers coupon (24/41).

However, parental advice to choose the healthy option was at least partially effective, as nine of 20 children in the French fries group who were advised to choose the healthy option did so, as opposed to four of 14 children in the French fries group who chose unaided.

In the apple dippers group, less children advised to choose the healthy option chose French fries at five out of 15 compared with 12 out of 26 in the group who chose unaided.

"These results suggest that advertising influences on children's healthy food choices can be considerable and extend this research by finding that parental influence has only small moderating influence on advertisements," write the authors in the Journal of Pediatrics.

They emphasize that politicians, advocates, and food producers could use the influence of advertising to help persuade children to eat healthily rather than simply banning the advertising of junk food.

"Advertisement effects can work both for and against healthy eating," said Ferguson.

"We suggest that future research endeavors look toward positive efforts to promote more responsible advertising to children that promotes healthier eating habits," concludes the team.

By Helen Albert

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