WASHINGTON DC: As the USA's war against child obesity intensifies, advocacy group Kaiser Family Foundation has published the results of a major study into TV food advertising to youngsters.

The report combines content analysis of TV ads with detailed data about children's viewing habits, providing an estimate of the number and type of ads seen by kids of various ages.

It found that youngsters aged between eight and 12 (tweens) see the most food ads on TV - an average of 21 a day, or more than 7,600 a year. Teenagers see slightly fewer ads, at 17 a day, but still totalling over 6,000 a year.

Very young children (aged 2-7) see the fewest food ads, at 12 per day, or 4,400 a year. The report says this is because they watch less TV overall and more of their viewing is on networks that have limited or no commercials, such as PBS and Disney.

For each age group studied, food was the top advertised product: 32% of all ads seen by the youngest age group were for food, while 25% of ads seen by the tweens and 22% of ads seen by teenagers were also for food.

Of all genres on TV, shows specifically designed for children under 12 have the highest proportion of food commercials - 50% of all ad time.

Comments the Foundation's Vicky Rideout, vp and director of the program for the study of entertain-ment media and health: "Children of all ages see thousands of food ads a year, but tweens see more than any other age group."

She adds: "Since tweens are at an age where they're just becoming independent consumers, understanding what type of advertising they are exposed to is especially important."

Advertising and food industry executives have been quick to point out that since the survey was carried out, between May and September 2005, progress has been significant.

Daniel Jaffe evp at the Association of National Advertisers, said the study ignored changes that businesses have made to minimize the exposure of less nutritious products.

He says: "There have been changes in the marketplace over the past 18 months that included the introduction of new and reformulated products." He was referring to foods lower in calories, salt or sugar or that contain whole grains.

Late last year a number of the largest food and drinks manufacturers in the US pledged to devote at least half their targeted children's advertising to the promotion of healthy food or physical activity [WARC News: 16-Nov-06]. Among those involved are PepsiCo, Kraft Foods and McDonald's.

Rideout ripostes: "While public service ads on fitness and nutrition may well play an important role in helping to fight childhood obesity, we need to be realistic about our expectations, given how few such messages children see."

Data sourced from New York Times; additional content by WARC staff