By Anjali Athavaley
U.S. children and teens are seeing fewer TV commercials for sugary drinks, but they remain a prime target for marketers through product placement, social media, and other means, according to a report released on Nov. 19.
The study, conducted by researchers at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, said 6- to 11-year-olds viewed 39 percent fewer television ads for sugary drinks in 2013 than in 2010. Teens saw a 30 percent drop.
The number of ads found on websites mostly visited by children also declined during the period, according to the report.
The report was based on Nielsen data on advertising exposure from 2013 and was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
But Yale researchers said beverage companies continued to reach young people through sites like Facebook and Twitter as well as mobile apps, and much of that marketing promoted unhealthy products.
“They’re trying to talk about offering healthier choices and lower sugar products,” said Jennifer Harris, the lead author of the report. “But if they keep marketing their high-sugar products to children and teens, they can’t say they are being a part of the solution.”
Under a voluntary program called the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, major soda companies do not advertise beverages other than juice, water, or milk-based drinks to any audience comprised predominantly of children younger than age 12.
The Rudd Center report examined total advertising, not just that for children’s programming. Researchers found that with some brands, children’s exposure to unhealthy drinks had increased since 2010.
For example, preschoolers saw 39 percent more television ads for PepsiCo Inc.’s sugary drinks. Both teens and 6- to 11-year-olds saw more television ads for Red Bull.
A Pepsi spokesman called the findings misleading. “The truth is that PepsiCo is, and will continue to be, a responsible marketer, particularly when it comes to children,” he said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for Red Bull described its target audience as adults aged 18 to 34.
The American Beverage Association, an industry trade group, said the authors of the Rudd Center report did “not adequately differentiate between marketing to children, who are widely viewed as a special audience needing particular care, and marketing to teens and general audiences.”