United States: Food Advertising and the Rise of Childhood Obesity


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The classic McDonald’s arch seen in Times Square. The fast food chain’s golden arches are now universally recognized. Source: Miguel Vaca

     In 2013, the American Medical Association formally recognized obesity as a disease for the first time. This designation attempted to combat the widely held misconception that obesity results from simply eating too much or exercising too little.1 Over the past four decades, obesity rates among U.S. teenagers have quadrupled, and today one out of three teens is either overweight or obese.2 Food corporations have significantly influenced the rising obesity epidemic. Their marketing strategies have played a decisive role in the development of this health crisis. It is impossible to avoid marketing in the modern world because of the bombardment of advertisements that society, especially children, face each day. If public health officials and the medical community hope to quell the rise of obesity, they will need to fundamentally change the interactions between the general public and food corporations. David Barboza, a journalist for The New York Times, describes how “the McDonald’s Corporation wants to be everywhere that children are. So besides operating 14,350 restaurants in the United States, it has plastered its golden arches on dolls, video games, book jackets and even theme parks”.3 Without increased government regulation of food advertising and a shift in public views on all of this marketing, the obesity epidemic will continue to expand.


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The fast food industry is a pervasive influence in elementary, middle, and high schools. Companies like McDonald’s target younger demographics, contributing to high obesity rates today. Source: maebmij

Research has demonstrated the powerful effect of marketing upon the type and quantity of food that people eat. In one study, elementary school children watched a cartoon that contained either a food-related or a non-food related ad. The children who watched the food advertisement consumed 45% more of the snack they were given afterward.4 Subtle messages about food, often specifically designed to trigger the body’s hunger response, have become an integral part of the typical television viewing experience. A review of advertising techniques done by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, now the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, found that fast food commercials directly aimed at children have increased by 28% and adolescents today see 40% more restaurant ads than 2002.5 This increase contributes significantly to the obesity epidemic because the malleable minds of children make them easy prey for advertisements. A study of 92 children studied the effect of food-related or non-food related content in a video game on eating habits. The kids exposed to food advertisements within the game chose snacks with greater caloric density and ate significantly more.

Americans expose themselves to extremely high quantities of advertising, in part due to their tendency to watch excessive amounts of television. Parents often use television as a cheap and reliable babysitter. A recent study looked at 207,672 adolescents and children, and found that 89% of adolescents and 79% of children reported one hour or more of daily television exposure.7 This increase in exposure corresponds to the growing overlap of popular culture and food marketing. Children interact with food in a context that references familiar, popular trends; they may receive free toys with their happy meals or watch celebrities and movie characters endorse the products they soon begin to use thereafter.


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An elementary school in Silver Spring, Maryland implements reforms to improve healthy eating and physical activity habits among students. The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service runs several programs to combat obesity by providing healthy meals to school children. Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

   These advertisements have spread beyond the confines of televisions or computers into our off-screen communities. A study published in BioMed Central found that for every 10% increase in food advertising in urban neighborhoods, the odds of high obesity levels increased significantly.8 In 2009, the fast food industry spent over $4.2 billion on TV advertisements, radio, magazines, outdoor advertising, and other forms of media. 9 This terrifyingly huge sum includes the smaller, but no less terrifying, $150 million budget for campaigns that took place directly in elementary, middle, and high schools, demonstrating the corporate value of the school-age demographic. Food and beverage advertising exists in 70% of elementary and middle schools and 90% of high schools.10 Companies integrate themselves in students’ social lives, as they claim advertisement space in cafeterias, sponsor school dances, and fund athletic programs.11 An article in The New York Times put it this way: “We’re talking about children being bombarded by propaganda so clever and sophisticated that it amounts to brainwashing, for products that can and do make them sick.”12

   Gender, race, socioeconomic status, and cultural traditions all play a vital role in shaping an individual’s relationship with food. Companies are aware of this and take advantage of these factors when creating their advertisements. According to a report about digital food marketing, “the goal of contemporary marketing is not simply to expose young people to ads, but rather to foster ongoing engagement- by encouraging them to interact with, befriend, and integrate brands into their personal identities and social worlds.”13 By connecting food products to pop culture, corporations generate enthusiasm among their young targets, who then influence their parents’ choices. A 2010 study by the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that 40% of parents reported that their child asked to eat at McDonald’s at least once a week.

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A student in Los Angeles, California eats new, healthier meals that her school has provided in an attempt to reduce obesity and improve nutrition. Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Recently, the government has attempted to change the way companies market. Under the Obama administration, the White House and the Department of Agriculture have laid out new restrictions to limit advertisements for unhealthy foods on school grounds.15 However, restrictions can be hard to implement because food companies are wealthy, well connected, and accustomed to self-regulation. In 2014, the food and beverage industry spent over $32 million lobbying against governmental attempts to rein in their advertisement campaigns.16 They argue that the right to free speech extends to corporations, which justifies their right to advertise free from governmental oversight. The attempt to regulate school-based advertisements, although it springs from good intentions, lacks the power to spur real progress. 


It is time to hold corporations accountable for their role in the obesity crisis. We will struggle to change the way in which the public interacts with food companies, as well as food itself. We will need to win over not only corporate boardrooms, but also classrooms and homes. Government officials must oversee food marketing and product placement, especially in schools. States need to incorporate nutrition courses into their curricula, mixing the importance of vegetables and the dangers of advertising into classes that will create savvy consumers. As new advertising techniques develop, we will need to empower the public to recognize manipulation in all of its forms. The best course of action lies in public education and the regulation of fast food and advertising corporations. Food companies are making America’s children sick, so we as a nation must begin to fight back.

Carlin Sheridan is a sophomore in Trumbull College. Carlin is a History major from New York. She can be contacted at carlin.sheridan@yale.edu.



  1. Pollack, A. (2013). AMA recognizes obesity as a disease. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/19/business/ama-recognizes-obesity-as-a-disease.html
  2. Montgomery, K. & Chester, J. (2011). Digital food marketing to children and adolescents. National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity. Retrieved from http://www.foodpolitics.com/wp-content/uploads/DigitalMarketingReport_FINAL_web_20111017.pdf
  3. Barboza, D. (2003). If you pitch it, they will eat it. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/03/business/if-you-pitch-it-they-will-eat.html?pagewanted=all
  4. Harris, J.L., Bargh, J.A., & Brownell, K.D. (2009). Priming effects of television food advertising on eating behavior. Health Psychology, 28(4), 404-413.
  5. Harris, J.L., Weinberg, M.E., Schwartz, M.B., Ross, C., Ostroff, J., & Brownell, K.D. (2010). Trends in television food advertising. The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Retrieved from http://www.uconnruddcenter.org/resources/upload/docs/what/reports/RuddReport_TVFoodAdvertising_2.10.pdf
  6. Folkvord, F., Anschutz, D.J., Wiers, R.W., & Buijzen, M. (2015). The role of attentional bias in the effect of food advertising on actual food intake among children. Appetite, 84, 251-258.
  7. Braithwaite, I., Stewart, A.W., Hancox, R.J., Beasley, R., Murphy, R., & Mitchell, E.A. (2013). The worldwide association between television viewing and obesity in children and adolescents: Cross sectional study. PLoS ONE, 8(9).
  8. Lesser, L.I., Zimmerman, F.J., & Cohen, D.A. (2013). Outdoor advertising, obesity, and soda consumption: A cross-sectional study. BMC Public Health, 13(20).
  9. Sifferlin, A. (2013). Forget the food: Fast food ads aimed at kids feature lots of giveaways. Time. Retrieved from http://healthland.time.com/2013/08/29/forget-the-food-fast-food-ads-aimed-at-kids-feature-lots-of-giveaways/
  10. Layton, L. (2014). In a first, agriculture dept. plans to regulate food marketing in schools. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/agriculture-dept-plans-to-regulate-food-marketing-in-schools/2014/02/25/8de7231a-9e3d-11e3-9ba6-800d1192d08b_story.html
  11. Harris, J.L., Schwartz, M.B., & Brownell, K.D. (2010). Evaluating fast food nutrition and marketing to youth. The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Retrieved from http://www.fastfoodmarketing.org/media/FastFoodFACTS_Report_2010.pdf
  12. Bittman, M. (2012). The right to sell kids junk. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/27/the-right-to-sell-kids-junk/?_r=0
  13. Montgomery & Chester, 2011.
  14. Harris et al, Trends in television food advertising, 2010.
  15. Nicks, D. (2014). White house sets new limits on junk food ads in schools. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/9528/white-house-michelle-obama-lets-move-sugary-drinks-schools/
  16. Lobbying spending: food and beverage industry profile. (2015) Center for Responsive Politics. Retrieved from https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/indusclient.php?id=N01


Works Consulted:

Bittman, M. (2011). Bad food? Tax it. Subsidize vegetables. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/opinion/sunday/24bittman.html

Brody, J.E. (2013). Many fronts in fighting obesity. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/20/many-fronts-in-fighting-obesity/

Dietz, W.H. & Gortmaker, S.L. (1985). Do we fatten our children at the television set? Obesity and television viewing in children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 75(5), 807-812.

Monsivais, P. & Drewnowski, A. (2007). The rising cost of low energy density foods. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 107(12), 2071-2076.

Nestle, M. (2011). New federal guidelines regulate junk food ads for kids. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/04/new-federal-guidelines-regulate-junk-food-ads-for-kids/238053/

Sifferlin, Alexandra. (2013). Why Michelle Obama went after junk food ads. Time. Retrieved from http://healthland.time.com/2014/02/25/what-food-marketing-changes-means-for-health/

Wethington, H., Pan, L., & Sherry, B. (2013). The association of screen time, television in the bedroom, and obesity among school-aged youth. Journal of School Health, 83(8), 573-581.




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