Cereal companies have improved the nutritional quality of most cereals marketed directly to children, but they also have increased advertising to children for many of their least nutritious products, according to a report by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.
From 2008 to 2011, total media spending to promote child-targeted cereals increased by 34 percent. Spending in Spanish-language media more than doubled, and black children's total exposure to TV ads for child-targeted brands increased by 7.5 percent. The Cereal FACTS report quantifies changes in the nutritional quality of cereals and children's exposure to cereal marketing after companies pledged to reduce marketing of unhealthy products to children.
"Children still get one spoonful of sugar in every three spoonfuls of cereal. These products are not nutritious options that children should consume every day," said lead researcher Jennifer L. Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center.
The new Cereal FACTS report, which was supported by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Rudd Foundation, documents changes in industry practices since the first study period. Key findings include:
Changes for the worse
Companies increased advertising to Hispanic and black youths:
• Hispanic children's exposure to Spanish-language ads tripled.
• Cereal companies launched new Spanish-language TV campaigns for seven brands, including Froot Loops and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
• Despite an overall decline in TV ads for child-targeted cereals, black children's total exposure to TV ads for child-targeted brands rose, with Kellogg's Froot Loops and General Mills' Reese's Puffs having the largest increases.
Companies increased child-targeted advertising for some of their least nutritious products:
• Children viewed more TV ads for the remaining seven child-targeted brands, including Reese's Puffs, Froot Loops, and Pebbles.
• Post launched a new Pebbles advergame website, and General Mills launched new sites for Honey Nut Cheerios and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
• Kellogg more than doubled banner advertising on children's websites, such as Nickelodeon.com and Neopets.com, for its child-targeted brands. General Mills also increased banner advertising for three brands, including Trix and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
• Kellogg introduced the first food company advergame for mobile phones and tablets targeted to children for Apple Jacks.
Changes for the better
Companies improved the nutritional quality of most cereals marketed to children:
• Overall nutritional quality improved for 13 of the 14 brands advertised to children. Of the 22 different varieties of these cereals available in both 2008 and 2011, 45% had less sodium, 32% had less sugar, and 23% had more fiber. General Mills improved the nutritional quality of all its child-targeted brands.
Companies reduced child-targeted advertising for some products:
• Millsberry.com and Postopia.com, the two most-visited children's advergame sites, were discontinued. Due to the elimination of Millsberry.com, General Mills decreased banner advertising on children's websites by 43%.
• Children viewed fewer TV ads for 7 seven of 14 child-targeted brands, including Corn Pops and Honeycomb.
More of the same
Companies continue to aggressively market their least nutritious products directly to children:
• Companies do offer more nutritious and lower-sugar cereals for children, like regular Cheerios and Frosted Mini-Wheats, but they are marketed to parents, not children.
"While cereal companies have made small improvements to the nutrition of their child-targeted cereals, these cereals are still far worse than the products they market to adults. They have 56 percent more sugar, half as much fiber, and 50 percent more sodium," said co-author Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center. "The companies know how to make a range of good-tasting cereals that aren't loaded with sugar and salt. Why can't they help parents out and market these directly to children instead?"
"It is obvious that industry regulating itself is a failure. If there is to be any hope of protecting children from predatory marketing, either public outcry or government action will be necessary to force the companies to change," added co-author Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center.
Researchers measured youths' exposure to TV and Internet advertising from all cereal companies by using syndicated data from Nielsen and comScore, Inc., as well as independent analyses.
The full report and tools for consumers and researchers are available at www.cerealfacts.org. Follow the Rudd Center and the conversation on Twitter at @YaleRuddCenter with the hashtag #cerealfacts.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's goal is to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic by 2015 by improving access to affordable healthy foods and increasing opportunities for physical activity in schools and communities across the nation. Author's website