Research probes childhood obesity

Nov 20th, 2008 | By | Category: November 20, 2008, Research

Advertising can make bad food look so good. And, Pat Kennedy knows parents face an uphill battle overriding those marketing messages in the eyes of children.

Kennedy and her colleague Mary McGarvey are nearing the end of a three-year U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded research study on childhood obesity. Kennedy, an associate professor of marketing at UNL, and McGarvey, associate professor of economics, are examining how the advertising of foods in schools, online and on TV affects children’s eating choices and contributes to rising childhood obesity rates. Preliminary results show a strong correlation between the messages of Madison Avenue and the snacks and fast food meals kids crave.

Advertising surrounds kids from the minute they wake up to morning shows or cartoons, through their school days, and into extracurricular activities or time at home on social networking sites. Estimates state that children are exposed to 40,000 advertisements each year on television alone, and now product placements even pop up in video games. Food and drink companies provide textbook covers, sponsor sports teams and educational programs, and donate freebies to physical education classes.


“It’s problematic because kids don’t view it as marketing, since it’s a connection to an educational experience,” Kennedy said.

The largest percentage of ads that run during children’s television programming is for cereals, soft drinks, and fast food. Previous research has shown that kids who watch more TV and see more ads request more products by name. In turn, parents are more likely to purchase unhealthy treats for their children. Retailers get in on the action, too, by placing “healthy” sports and energy drinks in stores and locations frequented by children.

Computers have opened up a whole new medium for advertisers. Marketing might not be as blatant – for example, McDonald’s might sponsor online games – but the messages are conveyed all the same.

And, Kennedy said, kids who spend time online are sitting and snacking, rather than joining sports teams or engaging in other active pursuits.

To explore the root causes of childhood obesity, Kennedy and McGarvey, a statistician, teamed up to collect and analyze data. Working with schools in three states – they will soon add a fourth – they distributed surveys to children and parents. The surveys posed questions aimed at 7- and 10-year-olds about exercise, favorite commercials, school lunches and snacking habits.

Parents were asked about advertising, government regulation of marketing messages, and general attitudes about weight and health. They also answered questions about diet and exercise routines that mirrored those asked of their children.


“What is unusual about this research is that we’re collecting information from kids and parents, then matching those results up through numbering systems,” Kennedy said. “We’re trying to get at a lot of stuff, which means it’s taking a long time to receive and analyze the results. We’ve chosen to target kids in the middle of elementary and middle schools, so we can go back in a couple years and reach most of them.”

One key preliminary finding is that sugary snacks don’t bear all the blame for childhood obesity. Kids’ lack of physical activity also plays a significant role. Many schools have been forced to decrease their offerings of physical education classes due to budget cuts, Kennedy said. Nationally, only 8 percent of elementary schools and 6.4 percent of middle schools are providing the U.S. Department of Health’s recommended amount of daily physical education.

“Physical activity and sports really seem to be the key,” Kennedy said. “If you can get kids playing sports, that seems to lower their Body Mass Index. There are even sports (basketball, baseball, volleyball) that are more attractive to overweight kids and kids with low self-esteem.”

A goal of Kennedy and McGarvey’s research is to promote policy change that will benefit children’s health. They are seeking models of schools that limit access to a la carte snacks and fast food options, and limit the amount of advertising to kids in schools. Their preliminary data suggests that prohibiting junk food in schools can reduce the likelihood of overweight and obese children by 38 percent.

Ironically, marketing can also be used to solve problems that the advertising industry has created.

“You can market physical activity directly,” Kennedy said. “You can also market products connected to physical activity, so for example you can create advertisements of attractive young people playing basketball and drinking diet soda.”

Kennedy and McGarvey will be making presentations and recommendations to schools at the conclusion of this project in early 2009. They will also be creating a Web site and recruiting some of the kids who took the survey to join an online community focused on health education.

Meantime, what are well-meaning parents to do?

“Make sure your kids are moving,” Kennedy said. “When they’re moving they’re not eating. And of course parents have heard this over and over again, but it bears repeating: keep healthy foods in the house.”

— Story by Sara Gilliam, University Communications

Tags: , ,

One comment
Leave a comment »

  1. Sara this is a hugely important topic and I think you presented it really well. Making health food FUN for kids is a key part of making the shift to more active kids capable of making better health food choices for their snacks and meals as they go through their day. Nothing sells kids like fun. And they remember on their own even without supervision when their connection to food is through fun. thanks for writing on this topic.

Leave Comment