How TV promotes sugary cereals to kids during cartoons

by Cole Petrochko

Last week, I was sick, the kind of sick where you’re not well enough to leave the house and be productive, but not sick enough to successfully sniffle in bed and subsist entirely on chicken soup and the wishes of family. My existence during that time could have been summarized as, “Periodic bouts of achy consciousness followed by extended fever dreams about King of the Hill characters.”

Most of the roughly eight hours I would be awake during a given day were spent watching TV. And, as a mature and sophisticated adult individual, of course I spent inordinate amounts of time watching cartoons like Adventure Time and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack.

During one span of time, I loaded up an Adventure Time episode On Demand, which was prefaced with a commercial filled with familiar Hanna-Barbera faces of Fred and Pebbles Flintstone advertising “Cupcake Pebbles Cereal,” which the ad assured me was a “party in a box,” that it was “yummy like a cupcake” and would make me want to rock.

My headache swelled and I actually felt sick to my stomach, and this was before I was prescribed an amoxicillin regimen my stomach did not respond well to initially. “Kids these days” get cupcakes for breakfast. In a cereal. And, apparently, are rocking out at seven in the morning, which is entirely too early for any rocking to be had, Stone Age wordplay be damned.

Advertising sugary breakfast cereals on kids television is nothing new — I’m not far removed from my Saturday mornings demanding the (disappointing) peanut butter-chocolate crunch of having Reece’s for breakfast or an era when Cinnamon Toast Crunch was sold by a miniature pastry chef and not cannibalistic bits of cereal. The long and short of this rant is that sugary breakfast cereal and sitting around in front of the television is not the best dietary choice for kids or adults, even with “10 essential vitamins!” thrown into the mix.

So, what are we having advertised to us? (In case you were desperately yearning to know, the cupcake cereal somehow has the same dietary profile, with 11 grams of sugar and 8% of your daily sodium, as regular Cocoa Pebbles, but lacks the copper, phosphorous, and magnesium of the chocolate breakfast bowl.)

According to a study in June’s Journal of the American Dietetic Association from Michael Mink, PhD, et al, a 2,000 calorie diet of foods advertised on Saturday mornings and prime time TV would give a person more than 2500% of his or her daily value of sugar and more than 2000% of their daily fat intake. That same diet would only contribute 40% of the recommended servings of vegetables, 32% of recommended dairy, and 27% of recommended fruits. The advertising diet had an overemphasis on protein, sodium, fat, and cholesterol, with a lack of iron, calcium, potassium, fiber, and vitamins A, D, and E.

The researchers pooled data from 28 days of TV broadcasts, leaving 614 food ads up for analysis. Breakfast ads were usually buffered with the “part of a complete breakfast” tag-line, but a complete breakfast was never quantified.

Additionally, 116 public service ads ran during the recorded broadcasts but none addressed nutrition education (though, from personal experience, I’ve seen many new Cartoon Network ad spots specifically promoting an active lifestyle and healthy eating — not all hope is lost). The ad time in the study was recorded during the fall 2004 season.

The conclusion of the researchers was that the dietary lifestyle advertised on TV, at least as of 2004, supports the development of chronic illness associated with unhealthy eating and a critical lack of necessary vitamins, minerals, and even entire food groups.

This makes some sense, as advertisers have to sell us ideas about products we wouldn’t otherwise consider buying, especially if we knew the saturation of which could lead to obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. After all, cigarettes used to be good for you, according to television ad space.

Luckily, people generally do not respond to advertising, as evidenced by the positive health profile in our country. Oh, wait.

Cole Petrochko is staff writer at MedPage Today and blogs at In Other Words, the MedPage Today staff blog.

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