Silly rabbit! Junk food ads contribute to childhood obesity, study says

Ronald McDonald, the Trix Rabbit and Sour Patch Kids are more than just benign cartoon characters. These child-centric marketing icons have contributed to the childhood obesity epidemic, according to a new study.

The investigation pooled data from 29 randomized trials involving 6,000 children to examine how exposure to marketing for high-calorie and sugary foods, such as Trix Yogurt or McDonald’s Happy Meals, increased a child’s short-term desire for these items. The study found that kids consumed 30 more calories when exposed to just four minutes of junk food advertising relative to control groups.

Dr. Bradley Johnston, co-author and clinical epidemiologist at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, said that an inclination for junk food combined with TV advertising could lead to overeating and eventual obesity.

“If we were to ban TV ads for bad fats, sugars and salts we could potentially reduce [the rates of] overweight and obese [children] by 15 and 2.5 percent respectively,” Johnston said of the research published today in Obesity Reviews.

The research found children 8 years and younger were most susceptible to the influence of advertising. Children as young as 2 years old could recognize food and beverage characters, such as McDonald’s Hamburgler or Cheetos’ Chester the Cheetah.

“If you think about Froot Loops and Pepsi and Coca-Cola, [these ads] start at childhood when the brain is most open to priming,” Johnston said of the subconscious impact of many food marketing strategies.

Johnston argues that the omnipresence of junk food ads factors into society’s rising levels of childhood obesity. Obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC states that obese and overweight children are more likely to be obese as adults, which can lead to stroke, diabetes, heart disease and certain kinds of cancers. In Johnston’s opinion, the remedy is a change in environment building — how society exposes children to food — as well as a policy shift in regulating how food companies can advertise to children.

Obesity in children occurs due to many factors, Johnston said. “If we want to make progress…we need to think not about just one thing—like advertising—but 20 things to quell obesity.”