December 21, 2006

Food Industry Marketing to Children Report

  • Todd Zywicki

    George Mason University Foundation Professor of Law, Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University
Key materials
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The Regulation

  • The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is preparing to create a report on food industry marketing activities and expenditures targeted to children and adolescents. The report is meant to analyze the role of advertising and marketing efforts in the increased incidence of childhood obesity.

Our Findings

We believe that there is little evidence that advertising causes obesity. Therefore, the FTC should take care to consider academic literature on the effects of food marketing and the causes of obesity, in addition to its collection of information from food and beverage companies.

  • Children view fewer food advertisements than they did in the past. There are a number of reasons for this: children watch less TV than they used to, and have replaced that time partly with commercial-free DVDs and videos; food advertising makes up a smaller share of television commercials than in the past; and remote controls and digital video recorders allow children to skip commercials.
  • Children and adolescents are spending more time on the Internet, but the impact of food advertising on the Internet is probably negligible.
  • The link between advertising and obesity is more likely due to the sedentary nature of TV watching than due to any causal effect of advertising on food preference. Physical inactivity is a primary cause of obesity.
  • Quebec and Sweden have both banned food advertising to children, but have not shown significant differences in their obesity rates when compared with other provinces or countries.
  • Advertising in general promotes competition and is important for new and better products to be introduced to the market.

By the Numbers

  • In 1977, the average child saw 20,000 paid advertisements on television. In 2004, the average child would have seen 17,507 paid advertisements.
  • Spending on food advertising has decreased in the past decade. Between 1994 and 1999, annual inflation-adjusted spending for food advertising was between $5.5 billion and $5.9 billion. Between 2000 and 2004, the range was from $4.79 billion to $5.04 billion each year.


  • The FTC should incorporate academic research which has shown that advertising has little to no significant effect on dietary choices.
  • The FTC should release non-confidential data to the public to allow other scholars to study the data and replicate the Commission's findings or research questions beyond the scope of the FTC's study.