February 23, 2004

Television Advertising Leads to Unhealthy Habits in Children; Says APA Task Force

Research says that children are unable to critically interpret advertising messages

WASHINGTON - Research shows that children under the age of eight are unable to critically comprehend televised advertising messages and are prone to accept advertiser messages as truthful, accurate and unbiased. This can lead to unhealthy eating habits as evidenced by today's youth obesity epidemic. For these reasons, a task force of the American Psychological Association (APA) is recommending that advertising targeting children under the age of eight be restricted.

The Task Force, appointed by the APA in 2000, conducted an extensive review of the research literature in the area of advertising media, and its effects on children. It is estimated that advertisers spend more than $12 billon per year on advertising messages aimed at the youth market. Additionally, the average child watches more than 40,000 television commercials per year.

The six-member team of psychologists with expertise in child development, cognitive psychology and social psychology found that children under the age of eight lack the cognitive development to understand the persuasive intent of television advertising and are uniquely susceptible to advertising's influence.

"While older children and adults understand the inherent bias of advertising, younger children do not, and therefore tend to interpret commercial claims and appeals as accurate and truthful information," said psychologist Dale Kunkel, Ph.D., Professor of Communication at the University of California at Santa Barbara and senior author of the task force's scientific report.

"Because younger children do not understand persuasive intent in advertising, they are easy targets for commercial persuasion," said psychologist Brian Wilcox, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center on Children, Families and the Law at the University of Nebraska and chair of the task force. "This is a critical concern because the most common products marketed to children are sugared cereals, candies, sweets, sodas and snack foods. Such advertising of unhealthy food products to young children contributes to poor nutritional habits that may last a lifetime and be a variable in the current epidemic of obesity among kids."

The research on children's commercial recall and product preferences confirms that advertising does typically get young consumers to buy their products. From a series of studies examining product choices, say Drs. Kunkel and Wilcox, the findings show that children recall content from the ads to which they've been exposed and preference for a product has been shown to occur with as little as a single commercial exposure and strengthened with repeated exposures.

Furthermore, studies reviewed in the task force report show that these product preferences can affect children's product purchase requests, which can put pressure on parents' purchasing decisions and instigate parent-child conflicts when parents deny their children's requests, said Kunkel and Wilcox.

Finally, in addition to the issues surrounding advertising directed to young children, said Kunkel, there are concerns regarding certain commercial campaigns primarily targeting adults that pose risks for child-viewers. "For example, beer ads are commonly shown during sports events and seen by millions of children, creating both brand familiarity and more positive attitudes toward drinking in children as young as 9-10 years of age. Another area of sensitive advertising content involves commercials for violent media products such as motion pictures and video games. Such ads contribute to a violent media culture which increases the likelihood of youngsters' aggressive behavior and desensitizes children to real-world violence," said Dr. Kunkel.

According to the findings in the report, APA has developed the following recommendations:

  • Restrict advertising primarily directed to young children of eight years and under. Policymakers need to take steps to better protect young children from exposure to advertising because of the inherent unfairness of advertising to audiences who lack the capability to evaluate biased sources of information found in television commercials.
  • Ensure that disclosures and disclaimers in advertising directed to children are conveyed in language clearly comprehensible to the intended audience (e.g., use "You have to put it together" rather than "some assembly required").
  • Investigate how young children comprehend and are influenced by advertising in new interactive media environments such as the internet.
  • Examine the influence of advertising directed to children in the school and classroom. Such advertising may exert more powerful influence because of greater attention to the message or because of an implicit endorsement effect associated with advertising viewed in the school setting.

APA Task Force on Advertising and Children: Dale Kunkel, Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara; Brian Wilcox, Ph.D., University of Nebraska; Edward Palmer, Ph.D., Davidson College; Joanne Cantor, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Madison; Peter Dowrick, Ph.D., University of Hawaii; Susan Linn, Ed.D., Harvard University.

Reporters: Dale Kunkel, PhD can be reached by phone at (202) 974-6372 or by Email and Brian Wilcox, PhD can be reached by phone at (402) 472-3130 or by Email

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.