updated 6/1/2007 7:49:35 PM ET 2007-06-01T23:49:35

Kids watch fewer food television ads than they did in 1977, a federal agency said Friday — but there’s a catch.

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A new Federal Trade Commission study found that half of the ads for junk food, sugary cereals and soft drinks are on children’s programs, double the number 30 years ago. That may bolster the view of health experts who say too many TV food ads contribute to a rise in childhood obesity.

Children between the ages of 2 and 11 saw approximately 5,500 food ads on television in 2004, down about 9 percent from roughly 6,100 such ads in 1977, the FTC’s study said.

However, half the food advertising children saw in 2004 was on kids’ shows, which are programs with audiences of 50 percent children or greater, the FTC found. That’s twice the level of 1977, when only a quarter of food ads children viewed were on children’s programs.

American companies spend about $15 billion a year marketing and advertising to children under age 12, the Institute of Medicine said last year when it warned that one-third of American children are obese or at risk for becoming obese.

Companies promoting healthier fare
In response, McDonald’s Corp. joined nine major food and drink companies in November, pledging to promote more healthy foods and exercise in their child-oriented advertising. Kraft Foods Inc. had promised a year earlier to curb ads to young children for snack foods, including Oreos and Kool-Aid.

Some health experts say corporate America is not doing enough. In December, the American Academy of Pediatrics said TV ads contribute to childhood obesity, as well as underage drinking.

“Young people view more than 40,000 ads per year on television alone and increasingly are being exposed to advertising on the Internet, in magazines and in schools,” the AAP said in a policy statement that called on Congress to ban junk food ads during children’s programming.

The FTC’s study estimates children saw approximately 25,600 TV ads in 2004, lower than the widely cited AAP figure because the agency used more detailed data.

While the FTC said its research was not intended to test whether there is a link between obesity and TV ads, “our data do not support the view that children are exposed to more television food advertising today.”

Still, the study’s summary said reducing food ads on children’s programming would have more of an impact than in the past.

The report attributes the greater concentration of food advertising on children’s’ shows to the rise of cable television.

The study was based on the number of ads shown during four weeks of national and local ad-supported programming in 2004, the FTC said, combined with data on the size of the audience viewing the ads.

Whether kids are seeing fewer ads on TV isn’t the issue, says Susan Linn, a Harvard psychologist and spokeswoman for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Newer forms of advertising, such as product placements in movies and TV shows, Internet ads and product tie-ins between popular movies and fast food restaurants makes the volume of TV ads “kind of meaningless,” Linn says. “Just because children may view fewer television ads in no way means that they’re being advertised or marketed to less,” she said.

The FTC said it is conducting a separate study that will look at newer forms of food and beverage marketing, including product placements and in-school marketing.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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