Fast Food Ads Carry Weight
Parental influence trumps ads aimed at kids—if healthy eating starts early.
Parents, do you feel like your efforts to encourage your kids to eat their fruits and veggies compete—poorly—against ubiquitous fast food ads? Don’t despair. While advertisements for fattening fast food carry more weight (ha!) than researchers had expected, parental influence is pretty strong as well. The key, the study says, is to focus on healthy eating while children are young.
Lead researcher Dr. Chris Ferguson of Texas A&M International University and his team studied 75 children ages 3 to 5 years old, and their reactions to commercials for French fries versus apple slices with dip. The commercials were shown between a set of two cartoons.
After the cartoons and commercials, the children were given a choice between a coupon for the fries or apple slices. Half of the parents encouraged the children to take a coupon for the healthy option, while the other half remained neutral.
Results indicated that when parents were neutral, nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of those kids chose a coupon for French fries. That number dropped to just over half (55 percent) when encouraged to choose the apple slices with dip. The power of parental influence, Ferguson says, was less than expected by the researchers.
The researcher, who has researched the effects of video games on youth violence, was surprised. “We were very skeptical about the power of advertising to influence children, particularly when parents were available to offset those influences,” Ferguson tells demodirt.com. “Nonetheless we found quite robust effects for advertising. Although parents were indeed able to blunt these effects somewhat, it was not to the extent we had speculated.”
Because his previous research on video game violence found no connection between gaming and real-life aggression, Ferguson says he expected a weaker connection between ads and behavior.
“We were aware that society can be quick to blame media for problems that truly have other origins, and so wished to investigate this issue with fast food advertising effects,” he adds.
There is a difference between “fictional media” like video games, Ferguson explains, and advertising, which presents itself as truth.
“Unlike video game violence, where the massive declines in youth violence during the video game era should have warned us we were on the wrong track, childhood obesity is an increasing problem,” he notes.
Parents should remain vigilant, but “rational,” Ferguson advises, when monitoring their children’s food choices.
“Parents need be prepared to be consistent in their own efforts to encourage children to eat healthy if they wish to offset such influences,” he adds.
The main parental advantage is control over the purse strings. “A five year old isn't going to hail a cab with fifty bucks in his wallet to go to Burger King,” Ferguson says.
As kids age, however, peer influence and greater independence take over—“the best impact parents are likely to have is when kids are young.”
Finally, don’t be quick to blame the fast food industry, Ferguson tells parents. “It's easy to get angry at the fast food industry, but we have to remember they're giving us what we want,” he says. “If we want them to offer us healthy food options, we have to actually buy them. Otherwise there's not much point getting angry at the producers.”
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