The Relationship Between Childhood Obesity and Television Advertising


Studies on the effects of television (TV) advertising on children have largely been focused how TV teaches violence. However, few studies have focused on the effects of television advertising on childhood obesity. This study will focus on how television advertising is linked with childhood obesity. The paper will analyze various studies that were carried out between 2006 and 2014 on the effects of television advertising on childhood obesity. A point-by-point analysis of various factors that draw the attention of children to high-calorie food products will be done. The selling power of television advertisement on food products that target children will also be analyzed. The paper will further discuss the limitations and strengths of these studies.


Television is a powerful advertising avenue that has been heavily relied on by manufacturers in persuading consumers to buy their commodities. Adverts on food products that target children are therefore packaged in a humorous way that catches their attention. The characters or product ambassadors who are used in these adverts have been taught how to attract children. They include renowned comedians, musicians, media personalities, and people whom the children admire. Framing of the advertisements is also positioned in a way that shows other children enjoying the products in an eye-catching way. Such adverts feature children eating cakes, soda, and high-fat food products, for example in a birthday party or during a family fun day. Such positioning of food products on advertisements influences the buying behavior of children and hence their consumption of fatty foods, sugar, salt, and carbohydrates. The effect of increased sugars and calorie consumption by children is obesity. Consequently, obesity results in overweight, hypertension, heart diseases, and low self-esteem in children. It is estimated that an average teenager consumes 3 hours of television every day. The inactive nature of television watching predisposes children to weight gain. Using various recent studies that have focused on the relationship between childhood obesity and advertising, this paper seeks to analyze the subject with a major aim of bringing out better understanding of the relationship between children television consumption and their health.

Limits/Scope of Analysis

This study will explore the relationship between childhood obesity and television advertising. It will be limited to analyzing six original research documents that have focused on the subject. The study will delve deep into the cause-effect aspect of food products advertisements that target children and their consequences on their health. The nature of food adverts that target children, the impact of packaging, branding, and framing on children buying behavior will also be explored. Both long and short-term effects of consumption of television adverts that promote foods and their correlation with children obesity will be explored. However, the paper will limit its analysis to researches on the relationship between television advertising and childhood obesity. The paper will also restrain its analysis to researches that were done between 2006 and 2014. Other effects of television advertisement on children such as violence and sexual behavior will not be explored.

Television Adverts Priming of Calorie-dense Low-nutrient Food and Childhood Obesity

A relationship exists between television priming of food that is rich in calories through advertising and obesity. This relationship has been proven by a recent study by Harris, Bargh, and Brownell (2013) on advertising and eating behavior. According to this research, advertising of high-calorie food results in a long-term effect of obesity in children. The study found that children who watched television cartoons where food was advertised or where the character took snacks while watching television also developed the same habit (Harris et al., 2013). The premise is that watching others take food on television makes the viewer also develop the same habit of eating. Harris et al. (2013) observed that most of the snacks that are advertised on television contain high calorie amounts. The study aimed at measuring the amount of snack that children consumed after being exposed to television advertisements on snacks. The findings pointed to an increase in snack consumption by children who watch television adverts that promote snacks. Television has a cathartic effect on its consumers. This observation implies that television advertisements have the power to cultivate certain behaviors in the viewers. Presentation of a certain habit such as snacking as a positive behavior that is associated with characters that children prefer, for example cartoons, make them develop the urge to behave like them. Children will therefore snack as they watch television if a character they like is depicted doing so in the program. Harris et al. (2013) affirm that advertising of snacks and carbonated foods in children’s program also predisposes them to obesity. At a childhood level, children are still searching their world to distinguish what is the right and accepted behavior and what behavior is not acceptable. The media plays the role of a super peer to children. This children-media bond makes them want to behave like characters who are depicted on the television adverts. As a result, they consume what the characters consume, thus resulting in obesity.

Influence of Television Advertisement on Children Eating Behavior and Food Preferences

Television is a great behavior model to its consumers, especially children. Children are likely to emulate the behavior that they watch on television. The social cognitive ability of television to make its consumers believe that what is aired is right overwhelms children. In a study that was conducted by Boyland and Halford (2013) on television and branding and their effects on eating behavior and food preferences in children, it was established that television affects children’s brand preferences. Children’s food buying and consumption behavior is majorly controlled by what they watch on television. Packaging of foods that are rich in sugars, salt, fat, and carbohydrates in a way that appears funny to consume makes children vulnerable to imitate the behavior. Boyland and Halford (2013) observe that children are fun loving and that they adore what makes them happy as they consume it. Advertisements of such high calorie products have therefore resulted in higher intake by children. The outcome is their increased weight and obesity cases. The study found a significant increase in weight in children who consume a lot of media content. Advertisements on foods that have high calories are presented in an attractive way to appeal to the viewers’ senses. For example, children watching the advert can taste, smell, hear, see, and touch the products. They have a low understanding on media interpretation and that they cannot clearly distinguish between media make-belief and the true content. Advertising draws a thin line between what is real and unreal. This power of branding enables food adverts to appear tasty, sweet, classy, and astounding. This situation makes children consume a lot of high calorie food, thus resulting in obesity.

Television Advertisement and Branding of High Calorie Food that Causes Obesity

Television advertisements rely heavily on branding as a way of enhancing the selling power. The media relies heavily on advertising as its major source of revenue. As a result, advertising has been accused of unethical practices, especially based on its impact on children. In a study that was conducted by Resnik and Stern (2013), it was realized that branding affects the choice of food products that children consume. Products that are advertised to children influence how they select what they consume. Since sugary products such as candy, soda, and bread are heavily advertised on television, children are likely to prefer them to others. Consumption of high carbohydrates and sugars predicts chances of obesity. Children choose what they have seen others consuming and what seems popular according to the media advertising agenda. For example, television advertising promotes emptiness on the side of the consumer who is made to view him or herself as lacking or inadequate if he or she does not eat or possess a particular product. This desire that is instituted by advertising makes children turn to their parents to buy them these sugary products, regardless of their knowledge of side effects. For example, a mother will buy cakes, sweets, and sausages to soothe her crying child, even when she is aware of the health hazards that such products pose to children. Resnik and Stern (2013) affirm that branding of food products also institutes the need to be part of the affluent society in children. Television ads are branded in a way that tells the society and children of what is trending, fashionable, and acceptable as high class in the society. For example, advertisements will position some chocolates that children from rich families consume, the cakes they use, sausages in their breakfast, and the drinks they take during their birthday celebrations. This plan influences other children to want to be like them, thus resulting in a high consumption of calories and inactivity. The outcome is obesity. Branding enables advertisers to position the ad in an appealing way with less or no disclaimer of the negative effects of products such as high carbohydrates and sugars that have high-calorie content on consumers.

Determinants of Children’s Eating Habits

Preferences of food habits by children are influenced by various factors, including parents, peers, genetic characteristics, and the environment. The latter has a profound effect on children’s health. A study by Scaglioni, Arrizza, Vecchi, Tedeschi (2010) establishes that parents have a great role to play in modeling the eating habits of their children. Parents have control of the eating habits of their children. Children easily shape the lifestyle that their parents adopt. Television is on the immediate environment of the consumers. For example, children begin watching television from a tender age. Parents have used television as a background noise to keep their children engaged. Parents have also used television to provide company to their children from a very tender age. It is therefore true that pre-television time does not exist in the modern-day children. Children are born to a television environment. Besides being brought up in television environment, they live in television setting. The television is not in the environment of children, but it is the environment. Scaglioni et al. (2010) confirm that the influence of television on parents eating habits can easily trickle down to their children. Parents are in charge of purchasing and preparation of food stuff. If a parent is influenced by media to consume a certain kind of food that is rich in calories or keep such foods always available in the house, children will turn to snacking too. This situation reveals why some advertisements are packaged in a whole-family-involving way.

Children-targeted Television Adverts vs. Adult-targeted Adverts

Food advertisements that aim at children are different from those that aim at adults. According to a study by Bernhardt et al. (2013) on how children-focused television fast food marketing compares with adult advertisement, it was established that food advertisements that target children emphasize rewards more than the food itself. On the other hand, food advertisements on television that are aimed at adults emphasize reduced prices, size, and tastes. This observation implies that food advertisements on television that are aimed at children are focused on influencing them to buy. Bernhardt et al. (2013) realize that children may not be interested in foods. However, they are likely to be attracted to the giveaways that come with it, for example toys. Television messages and images that advertise food for children are therefore focused on the latest toys and playing objects that are tied to the food or that are available in the place where the food is offered. For example, the advert will promote the name of food that is available in a certain hotel, although it will quickly link it to playing items such as toys that are available within the hotel. Besides, it will show images of children playing using the toys. This plan works well in the cultivation approach of media advertising that targets to exploit the viewers’ interest and behavior.

Eating Habits and Obesity

Eating habits have a direct influence on childhood obesity. The effects of television food advertisement can influence children’s eating behavior. According to a study by Brown and Ogden (2013), parents have a direct influence on children’s eating habits. Consumption of foods, which are rich in carbohydrates, sugars, calories, and salts, results in overweight and obesity. Parents play a major role in modeling the eating behavior of their children. Parents form eating habits that are emulated by children. Brown and Ogden (2013) assert that if parents take sugary foods, they are likely to institute the same behavior to their children. Parents also control the exposure of their children to media. Consumption of food adverts by children will therefore influence their eating habits.

Conclusion: Limitations and Strengths of all Studies

The strength of the six studies that have been reviewed in this analysis is that they are all focus on recent researches on the subject that is under investigation. This strength makes the studies reflective of the current scenario in food advertisement and childhood obesity. All the six studies focus on the cause-effect approach to the issue of food advertisement and childhood obesity. The weaknesses of these studies are that they focus on eating of high calorie foods. For example, the study by Harris et al. (2013) only focuses on television framing on eating habits. Study by Boyland and Halford (2013) and Resnik and Stern (2013) focus on television and branding. Studies by Scaglioni et al. (2010), Bernhardt et al. (2013), and Brown and Ogden (2013) focus on eating habits as a major cause of childhood obesity. The impact of other factors such as inactive lifestyle and stress that children are exposed to is not considered.

Reference List

Bernhardt, A., Wilking, C., Adachi-Mejia, A., Bergamini, E., Marijnissen, J., & Sargen, J. (2013). How Television Fast Food Marketing Aimed at Children Compares with Adult Advertisements. Web.

Brown, R., & Ogden, J. (2013). Children’s eating attitudes and behavior: a study of the Modeling and control theories of parental influence. Health Education Research, 19(3), 261-271.

Boyland, E., & Halford, V. (2013). Television and advertising: Effects on eating behavior and food preferences in children. Web.

Harris, J., Bargh, J., & Brownell, K. (2013). Priming effects on television food advertising on eating behavior. Web.

Resnik, A., & Stern, B (2013). Children’s Television Advertising and brand choice: A laboratory experiment. Journal of Advertising, 6(3), p. 11.

Scaglioni, S., Arrizza, C., Vecchi, F., Tedeschi, S. (2010). Determinants of children’s eating behavior. American Society for Nutrition, 94(1), 2006S-11S.