If you’re wondering whether it matters that your kids see all those fast-food commercials on TV, and whether telling them to eat healthy makes a difference, the answers are “yes” and “probably,” suggests a study out this week from Texas A&M International University.
Researchers there showed 75 children ages 3 to 5 two cartoons interrupted by a one-minute commercial for either McDonalds French fries or apples slices with dipping sauce (Apple Dippers). After TV time, the kids sat down with their parents and were allowed to choose a coupon for either product. Parents either guided their children by saying, “You should choose the one that is healthiest,” or remained neutral by saying, “You should choose whichever one you want more.”
Kids chose the coupon for French fries at rates of:
• 71% when they saw a French fry commercial and their parents remained neutral.
• 55% when they saw a French fry commercial and their parents spoke up for a healthy choice.
• 46% when they saw an Apple Dipper commercial and their parents stayed neutral.
• 33% when they saw an Apple Dipper commercial and their parents told them to choose the healthiest option.
Lead author Christopher Ferguson, Ph.D., whose primary area of research is videogame violence, says he was surprised at the power commercials had to influence the children in this study. He says the media are often wrongly blamed for social problems, and that he began the research skeptical about the power of advertising over children – especially if their parents were there to offset its influence. “Although parents were indeed able to blunt these effects somewhat, it was not to the extent we had speculated,” he says.
This could be at least in part because parents in the study were given only one chance to persuade their children to pick the healthier product. Consistent, long-term messages about healthy eating might have more impact than that one suggestion in the lab, Ferguson notes. And while older children might have a better shot at ducking an ad’s persuasive power, Ferguson points out that commercials can even influence adults.
Still, rather than trying to ban commercials targeted at kids or create ads for fresh broccoli, Ferguson suggests people focus on advocating for a middle ground. “Anyone who thinks that children are going to go to McDonald’s to eat turnips is kidding themselves,” he says. “But I think there are ways to make reasonably healthy options ‘fun’ even if a little indulgent.” He calls Apple Dippers a good compromise between “god-awful options and those that simply taste god-awful.”
“Of course it will all come down to marketing,” he ads. “Restaurants will offer us the food we buy. If we want McDonald’s to offer healthy food items, we, as consumers, have to actually buy them.”