Sugary Drink Advertising: Who It Hurts the Most

By Rhea Jayaswal, B.S. student

Someone’s TV is likely playing an ad right now, maybe something with a bright blue sky, a family with a green backyard, and a tail-wagging golden retriever. Then there’s a fizzle and a pop. Dad just opened a soda can and everyone’s smiling – and the scene cuts to a corporate logo. 

    It’s a very simple marketing tactic, surrounding the product with happiness and joy so that the audience starts to associate these positive feelings with the brand. Eventually the two become inseparable, and consumers are more inclined to purchase the product. It’s a strategy that adults can easily recognize and dismiss. Children have a harder time doing this, and therefore are much more vulnerable to advertising. 

    Nowadays, sugary drinks are the leading source of empty calories for kids. Sugary drinks include regular sodas, iced tea, sports drinks, and energy drinks – anything with added sugar or other sweeteners. These beverages are linked to numerous diseases, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The obesity epidemic in the US has grown significantly in recent years and threatens to get worse as childhood obesity rates rise. As the search for scientific solutions continues, research has also begun to blossom in the policy sphere. Experts are examining how these drinks are marketed and sold to the public. A 2020 report by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity examined the changes in sugary drink advertising from 2010 to 2018. 

One change researchers note is that youth are spending less time watching TV. However, the number of TV ads they saw for sugary drinks did not decrease at the same rate. For kids ages 2-11, the amount of ads they saw actually increased over five years, from 2013-2018. To illustrate this point, we can look at viewing changes for one subcategory: regular, non-diet soda ads. Preschoolers (ages 2-5) saw 78% more ads per year despite a 35% decrease in TV viewing times. Children (6-11) saw 55% more ads despite a 42% decline, and teens (12-18) saw 1% more ads despite 52% less viewing time. Even though all age groups cut down on TV time, they saw a greater number of TV ads for soda than in the past.

On the other hand, some things haven’t changed in the last decade. Sugary drink ads continue to be shown disproportionately to kids of color. Black preschoolers, children, and teens saw over twice as many TV ads for sugary drinks compared to their White peers. How does this happen? Companies purchase ads during programming viewed more by Black youth than White youth. 

Ads are increasingly targeting Hispanic youth as well. Sugary drink ad spending in Spanish-language TV increased by 80% over eight years. Hispanic and Black populations already experience higher rates of obesity than White populations, and targeted advertising likely continues to fuel these disparities. 

The two sugary drink companies that spend the most on advertising are PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, together showing over two-thirds of all sugary drink ads to kids. When compared to other sugary drink advertisers, these two companies target Black preschoolers, children, and teens the most. PepsiCo, like many of its peers, put together a racial equality message, but has not yet acknowledged or stopped its role in perpetrating racial health disparities through targeted advertising.

Sodas aren’t the only sugary drink that show alarming trends. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no consumption of energy drinks below the age of 18 due to their high levels of caffeine and other stimulants in addition to their high sugar content. However, two of the largest sugary drink advertisers to kids are energy drink companies – Red Bull and Innovation Ventures. Energy drink ads also target Black teens, who see over twice as many energy drink ads as White teens. 

Sports drinks are another category kids should avoid according to the AAP. There is a misleading perception that these drinks are healthier or meant to accompany physical activity, but the amount of sugar they contain is incredibly high. Sports drink brands are especially guilty of targeting their advertising to Hispanic and Black youth. Exposure to Spanish-language ads for sports drinks increased more than ten-fold for Hispanic preschoolers, children, and teens, despite the decrease in TV viewing times. Black teens saw nearly three times as many sports drinks ads as White teens.

Researchers have already developed a long list of actions to counter these issues, some of which companies can enact themselves. First, corporations should shift their advertising dollars to market healthier products to children and teens. A focus here should be on reducing sugary drink advertising in Hispanic and Black-targeted media. 

Policy changes are also needed. One suggestion is an excise tax on sugary drinks to deter purchases, and then reinvesting that money into programs to improve community health and counter health disparities. Health warnings could be placed on sugary drinks to promote awareness, and the FDA can establish regulations to require disclosure of added sugars, zero-calorie sweeteners, and caffeine content on the front of packaging. Countries like Chile have already seen success in decreasing sugary drink purchases following these regulations.

Many more expert recommendations are detailed in the report and are meant to be implemented at the local, state, and national levels. All of these policy changes strive towards the same goal: lessening the medical burden of sugary drink advertising on our future generations, and keeping our kids healthy. 

Peer-edited by Ashley Aguillard

Picture credit

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