FTC report: Marketing, nutrition profile of foods marketed to children

January 4, 2013


The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has announced the results of a comprehensive study of food and beverage industry marketing expenditures and activities directed to children and teens. The study, A Review of Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents: Follow-Up Report, gauges the progress industry has made since first launching self-regulatory efforts to promote healthier food choices to kids. It serves as a follow-up to the Commission’s 2008 report on food marketing requested by Congress.

The report provides a picture of how food companies allocated $1.79 billion on marketing to youth ages 2–17 in 2009. The study compares the 2006 data presented in the first report to 2009 data. The FTC obtained the data through compulsory process orders, or subpoenas, that it issued to 48 major food and beverage marketers. The FTC found that overall spending was down 19.5% from 2006, with most of that decrease coming from less spending on television ads to youth. At the same time, food companies stepped up their spending by 50% to market to children and teens in new media—such as online, mobile, and viral marketing.

New to this report is a detailed analysis of the nutritional profile of foods marketed to youth. The analysis suggests that industry self-regulation resulted in modest nutritional improvements from 2006 to 2009 within specific food categories heavily marketed to youth, such as cereals, drinks, and fast food kids’ meals. According to the report, food company participation in self-regulation has increased, but some companies with significant marketing to children still have not joined the effort. The entertainment industry lags farther behind. With a few exceptions, media companies have not limited licensing of children’s characters and placement of ads during children’s programming to more nutritious foods.

“The encouraging news is that we’re seeing promising signs that food companies are reformulating their products and marketing more nutritious foods to kids, especially among companies participating in industry self-regulatory efforts,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “But there is still room for improvement: We will look for continued progress by the food industry and greater participation by the entertainment industry.”

Key findings about the nutritional quality of foods within the product categories most heavily marketed to children or teens include the following.

  • Cereals: Cereals marketed to children ages 2–11 in 2009 had less sugar than in 2006 (a 0.9 g decrease) and slightly more whole grain (an increase of 1.6 g, or one-tenth of one serving). Marketing to children of the most sugary cereals—those with 13 g or more sugar per serving—was virtually eliminated between 2006 and 2009. Cereals with mostly refined grain, however, continued to dominate youth marketing in 2009.
  • Drinks: Drinks marketed to children and teens were slightly lower in calories in 2009 than in 2006, but still averaged more than 20 g of added sugar per serving. Most of the improvement came from drinks marketed and sold in schools, as the result of a self-regulatory program launched in 2006 by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and the American Beverage Association.
  • Fast Food: The FTC found that quick-service restaurant food, or fast food, marketed to both children and teens was lower in calories, sodium, sugar, and saturated fat in 2009 than in 2006. Restaurant menu items specifically identified as “children’s meals” were more nutritious than other quick-service restaurant meals and main dishes marketed to children ages 2–11. Pledge companies participating in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (a self-regulatory program run by the Council of Better Business Bureaus) marketed more nutritious products to children than restaurants that did not participate in this self-regulatory program.

Press release

Report (pdf)