In the last several years, the US obesity epidemic has reached unprecedented severity. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), as of 2002, 65% of American adults over 20 years of age were overweight; of these, 30% were obese, and 5% were extremely obese. For African Americans, the prevalence of obesity is even higher: among black women over 20 years, 77% are overweight and 49% are obese, whereas among black men, 63% are overweight and 28% are obese.
It is generally recognized that obesity occurs from regular consumption of energy in excess of that used by the body; thus, one approach to weight reduction is to decrease the calories consumed. One barrier to reducing calorie consumption may be the intense marketing by producers of less healthful foods (eg, candy, soda) and insufficient counter marketing of healthful foods.
A body of research has linked frequent television viewing with obesity, especially in women and children. Three mechanisms have been proposed to explain the link between obesity and television viewing: (1) television displaces exercise and other active pursuits, (2) television leads to increased food consumption while watching, and (3) exposure to advertising on television leads to subsequent consumption of advertised foods. This article focuses on the third theory: the potential of television ads to increase consumption of advertised foods.
There is a great deal of advertising of energy-dense or low-nutrient foods on television. An analysis of 2001 advertising spending found that US companies spent $3.5 billion on fast-food advertisements and $5.8 billion on the separate food, beverage, and confectionary category, including $785.5 million for the top 5 soda brands. Other analyses of televised food references have also shown that many are for high-calorie or low-nutrient foods. Importantly, there is evidence of behavioral implications of exposure to food advertising. Consumption of advertised foods is higher than consumption of foods that are not advertised, and advertising expenditures are generally greatest for the most highly processed and packaged foods." Children exposed to more food advertising have been found to choose the products advertised at significantly higher rates than children not exposed to the advertisements, and the time spent with television has been significantly associated with the purchase influencing attempts of children at the grocery store, Further, it stands to reason that food manufacturers are putting milhons of dollars hehind advertising campaigns because they are effective at promoting sales. Food companies could encourage better nutritional practices and perhaps play a role in countering the increase in obesity by creating more healthful foods and exphcitly promoting the foods on the basis of weight-friendly nutritional properties, such as being low in fat, low in calories, or otherwise contributing to a healthful diet.
The extent to which obesity-related health claims are included in televised food advertisements has not been estabhshed.A number of studies have documented the prevalence of different categories of foods advertised on television and in magazines, and content analyses of print advertisements have found that nutritional claims are in the minority. Other recent research found that food advertisements aired on African American television are typically for less healthful foods. However, less is known about the types of nutritional claims that appear on television, the most important medium used for food advertising. The present study sought to document the presence of nutritional claims in food advertisements aired during popular television programs and, more specifically, to compare advertising on shows targeted to African Americans with advertising during programming aimed at a general audience.