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Are Food Ads Fueling Childhood Obesity?

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From the moment 10-year-old Sam Brown begins his day he is bombarded with images of fatty, salty, sugary junk food.

His mom, Cynthia Brown, battles daily with ads that sabotage Sam's healthy diet. He is the oldest of four siblings, living in Pelham, N.Y.

"I think that kids are awfully perceptive, and they're very open to new products," she said.

Her son said he knows that children are targets.

"Kids are just really the victim of advertisements," said Sam Brown. "And they're just all over the place. Every single place they can think of."

A New York University study found that $13 billion a year is spent marketing to American children by the food and drink industries. Food advertising makes up about half of all advertising aimed at kids. Meanwhile, more than 15 percent of school-aged children are dangerously overweight. Kids are eating up to 200 more calories a day now then they did just 15 years ago.

Good Morning America tagged along with Sam to see how many advertisements he came across in a typical day.

Campaign Starts With TV

The ad campaigns for food aimed at children begin with television. While Sam watched Nickelodeon for two hours, he saw 53 commercials. Since it is close to the holidays, most of the ads were for toys, but five were for junk food. And Nickelodeon is one of the more responsible networks when it comes to marketing. Studies show that half of all ads aired during children's Saturday morning shows are for food.

"I think a lot of companies actually realize that kids don't even have breakfast before they watch TV," Sam Brown said. "And to try and catch them right when they're hungry."

Like 70 percent of American children, Sam gets to pick his own breakfast cereal.

"I like Lucky Charms because it has two parts to it," the boy said. "The healthy part and the non-healthy part."

By non-healthy, Sam means the sugary marshmallows that are the cereal's charms, while the healthy party is the cereal itself.

Oreos on the Ice?

After breakfast, Sam finds more as he flips through his favorite magazines. In one of them, five out of seven ads push junk food and candy. Even his hockey magazine had food ads.

"I think it's really crazy that there are food ads," he said. "Hockey players don't eat mini-Oreos."

Sam is normally on the Internet for an hour a day, and there he is bombarded again. While surfing a toy site, he spots another food temptation, an ad for a McDonald's ice cream dessert maker.

"Right here there's an icon right here for a McDonald's McFlurry maker where you can make your own McFlurry at home," Sam Brown says, pointing to the ad. "I think that looks really fun."

Games and Treats

Kids like Sam also enjoy "adver-games," Web sites like "" that successfully turn marketing messages into fun computer games. Nabisco claims that most of their visitors are over 18. But according to NielsenNetRatings data from Oct. 2003, Kraft food sites like attract more than 800,000 kids per month.

After Web surfing, it is time for errands, so Sam and his mom head to the supermarket. But before they can get there, they stop for gas and are bombarded once more.

"I have noticed that a lot of gas stations are selling a lot more food," Sam Brown said, looking through the aisles.

Next, the impact of marketing bombardment on Sam's choices is apparent the minute they grab a grocery cart, Cynthia heads for the fruit. But Sam has other ideas.

Grocery Shopping Tug of War

"I think sometimes seeing it on TV, they want it. Seeing it at the store, they want it," Cynthia Brown said. "Every mother knows that it's easier to go grocery shopping without her children."

Several times there was a tug of war over what Sam wanted vs. what mom would allow.

Instead of the Hawaiian Punch that Sam picked up, she chose Minute Maid juice. Then there was the battle over the flavored milk.

"Sam Brown, what's this?" Cynthia Brown said, taking a carton of Strawberry Nesquik out of her cart. "I don't think so, put it back."

More television often caps Sam's day. In a typical hour he's bombarded with - no surprise - more ads for junk food.

Tips for Parents

Companies do claim to be responsible when marketing to children.

McDonald's, for instance, would say they offer some healthy choices on their menu. Sugary cereals like Lucky Charms would point out they fortify their marshmallows with calcium.

And ultimately food companies say it's really up to parents to read nutritional labels and decide what is best for their children. But parents are out-numbered and out-financed by marketers.

One good way to get children eating healthier is to consider what's in the pantry. Parents are also advised to think about their family's eating habits and see where some choices that eliminate unhealthy foods like soda can be made. Drinking one additional can of a sugary soda, for instance, raises the odds of a child's becoming obese by 1.6 times, according to a 2001 study from Children's Hospital Boston and the Harvard School of Public Health

Another study found that children who watch television during meals eat 5 percent more junk food than those who don't. It's much better to sit down as a family and eat, so that you are less likely to go out and get high-fat fast food. Having a sit-down dinner also gives you greater control of the portion of food your child eats.

Food companies spend $13 billion a year marketing to children in the United States. Parents should help their children understand marketing techniques and consider muting the television during ads.

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Copyright 2003 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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