DMS study links films and obesity
By Casey Aylward
Published on Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Food and beverage manufacturers and retail brands target children and adolescents by paying to have their “energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods” appear in films, according to a new study by researchers at the Hood Center for Children and Families at Dartmouth Medical School. The study, which currently appears online in the journal “Pediatrics” and will be released in print in March, identifies product placement in popular movies that are G-rated, PG-rated and PG-13-rated as a source of exposure to the films’ young viewers.
Lisa Sutherland, a professor of pediatrics at DMS who led the study, decided to investigate ties between food and beverage marketing and youth food choice after watching the 2003 movie “S.W.A.T.,” with her then 12-year-old son, she said.
“Through the entire movie, I was hung up on the fact that there were so many images of McDonald’s products and Dr. Pepper,” Sutherland said. “Because of my research in child obesity, I was captivated by the prevalence of food and beverage brands on the screen and their link to youth food choice.”
Sutherland and her team applied in 2005 for a grant from the National Cancer Institute, which began funding their project the next year. The group then collaborated with a team of technicians at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center to develop a structured system for measuring how often food, beverage or food retail establishment brands appear in the top-twenty U.S. box office movie hits each year from 1996 to 2005.
Of the 200 movies researched, 69 percent contained at least one brand placement, the study said. In these movies, there were 1,180 total placements.
Candy and confections and salty snacks were the most prevalent food brands featured in the films, while sugar-sweetened beverages were the most prevalent beverage brands, according to the study. Two-thirds of the food retail establishment placements were fast-food brands.
Food and beverage product placements in movies geared specifically to older children and teenagers, including comedies and horror films, are of “particular concern” because their young audiences are gaining independence in selecting their food choices, the study said.
The recent interest in First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, which aims to address childhood obesity, has sparked interest in Sutherland’s work, according to DMS media-relations officer David Corriveau.
“The convergence of circumstances with Michelle Obama’s initiative on obesity with the release of [Sutherland’s] research is making an impact in health news,” Corriveau said.
In the study, Sutherland identified solutions that would alleviate the exposure children have to unhealthy products, including the placement of healthier foods in movies.
“I would like foods that we would like to see children eating, such as fruits and vegetables, replace the current food products,” Sutherland said. “Also, all of the major companies that had their food in movies have some line of product that is healthier that they could display instead.”
She added that companies placing their brands in movies should also disclose to the public how much they spent placing a product in each film.
The study has provided insight into the effectiveness of Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a voluntary program launched in 2006 by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, Sutherland said. Under the terms of the Initiative, participating companies agree to devote at least half their advertising directed at young children to promote healthier dietary choices, good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle, according the BBB web site.
“Because our study ended in 2005, we created a benchmark to see if they will move forward with that pledge,” Sutherland said.
Co-authors include Todd MacKenzie, a professor of community and family medicine at DMS, Hood Center director Madeline Dalton and Hood Center lecturer Lisa Purvis.
Sutherland was recently awarded an NCI-funded Career Development Award that will help fund her study on the impact of television advertising on adolescent diets, examining specific variations by gender and race and ethnicity, according to the HCCF web site.