The study, which appears in the current online edition and the March 2010 print edition of the journal Pediatrics, shows that most of the “brand placements” for food, beverage, and food-retail establishments that movies frequently portray promote energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods or product lines. The study also shows for the first time that product placements in movies may be a far more potent source of advertising to children in terms of food choices than previously understood.
“The current situation in the United States is very serious in terms of the health of our children,” says lead author Lisa Sutherland, Ph.D., a research professor of pediatrics at DMS, “We have to look seriously at all of the factors that may be contributing to it, including the impact of product placements in movies.”
She adds that the diet quality of children and adolescents in the United States has declined markedly during the past 20 years, while current estimates suggest that one percent of children eat a diet consistent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) My-Pyramid food guidance.
Moreover, fewer than one-fifth of adolescents eat as much fruit and vegetables as dietary guidelines recommend. Result: Over the last 20 years obesity rates have doubled for children ages 6 to 11 and tripled for adolescents ages 12 to 19.
“While the issue of food advertising and its effect on children has been well-documented in numerous studies,” Sutherland says, “comparatively little is known about product placement in movies and how it affects the food and beverage preferences and choices of children and adolescents.”
The study points to differences as well as similarities between television advertising and movie product placement, such as the low nutritional quality of the majority of branded products. While recent studies that examined television ads during adolescent programming found a ramping-up of fast food and ready-to-eat cereals and cereal bars during children’s programming, the Dartmouth study found that sugar-sweetened beverages, largely soda, accounted for the largest proportion of all of the movie-based food product brand placements – one of every four brand placements overall.
The study cites with particular concern the number of product-placements of food and beverages in the kinds of comedies, PG-rated, and PG-13-rated movies that studios gear specifically to older children and teenagers – at the age where they are gaining independence in choice of food. Although the impact of this type of advertising on children remains less than fully known, it provides a likely avenue by which to build brand loyalty and product preference as well as influence eating patterns.
The study also reveals that six companies accounted for 45 percent of all brand placements and included PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestle USA, McDonald’s, Dr. Pepper/Snapple Group and Burger King. And it acknowledges that many companies have pledged not to direct advertising at children, the better to encourage healthier dietary choices – a step in the right direction, the researchers say, while cautioning of a need to do more.
In addition, the study’s authors say that a number of studies to date that focused on other health-related behaviors, including alcohol and tobacco use, showed that movies contain frequent portrayals of these risk behaviors and often include brand appearances of the products. They say it is well established that children who view these risk behaviors in movies are more likely to engage in the behavior themselves.
“This is an area of study which clearly requires more research,” says Sutherland, one of the team of advisors which, in 2006, helped to develop the Guiding Stars program that supermarkets use to help shoppers better identify the nutritional values of food products. “At a time in their development where children and adolescents are very susceptible to outside influences, we have to carefully examine the influence of all the factors that are combining to create what may end up being lifelong habits around food and lifestyle choices. Certainly, food-product placement in movies is one of many factors, but it is one that may be far more influential than previously realized and perhaps the least well understood.”
Co-authors include Todd MacKenzie, Ph.D., an associate professor of medicine and community and family medicine at DMS, Hood Center director Madeline A. Dalton, Ph.Dl, and Hood Center lecturer Lisa A. Purvis, M.P.H., M.B.A.
David Corriveau, Media Relations Officer, Dartmouth Medical School, at David.A.Corriveau@Dartmouth.edu or 603-653-0771