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Movies Butter Up to Kids Via Junk Food

Junk Food Not Just at the Concession Stand, It's Also on the Movie Screen, Study Finds

By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 9, 2010 -- Children are blasted with images of non-nutritious foods and beverages when they go to the movies, a new study says.

Companies pay to have their products used conspicuously in movies, and items pushed are overwhelmingly low in nutrients and high in calories, researchers say in a new study in the journal Pediatrics.

For the study, raters viewed 200 movies that cashed in big at the box office, scoring the top 20 hits each year between 1996 and 2005 based on sightings of brand foods, beverages, and food retail establishments.

The study found that 69% of the movies had at least one food, beverage, or food retail establishment brand placement. Movies rated PG-13 and R scored significantly higher on brand placements than movies in other categories, the authors write.

The researchers, including Lisa A. Sutherland, PhD, of Dartmouth Medical School, say that their study is the first to provide a comprehensive analysis of food and beverage product placement in popular movies. Candy and salty snacks were common product placements, as were sugar-sweetened beverages and fast food eateries.

The researchers say that:

  • Candy/confections (26%) and salty snacks (21%) were the most prevalent food brands, and sugar-sweetened beverages (76%) were the most prevalent beverage brands.
  • Most of the placements were for high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods or product lines.
  • Products were placed most often in comedies, action-adventure, and horror films.
  • Soft drink, chips, and fast food brands dominated PG and PG-13 movies.
  • McDonald's and Burger King were responsible for one-fifth of all fast food brand placements.
  • Sugar-sweetened drinks accounted for one of every four brand placements identified by researchers.

The researchers say trained scorers spotted 1,180 brand placements in 138 movies, and most were for foods or product lines with little nutritional value.

"Our findings demonstrate that popular movies provide yet another medium through which energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods are promoted to children and adolescents," the authors write.

Product placement is far from new, but it didn't attract much attention until the early 1980s, when placement of Reese's Pieces candies in the movie E.T. resulted in a 65% jump in sales within three months.

The authors say although "the prevalence of food and beverage advertising in children's television programming has been widely studied, little is known about product placement in movies and how it might affect the food and beverage preferences and choices of children and adolescents."

According to the study, six companies -- PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestle US, McDonald's, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, and Burger King -- accounted for 45% of all brand placements in the movies viewed.

The authors say that Coca-Cola and PepsiCo "have longstanding commitments not to advertise their soft drink products during children's television programming," but their items "regularly appeared in movies, especially those rated for children and adolescents."

SOURCES: Sutherland, L. Pediatrics, published online Feb. 8, 2010.

News release, Pediatrics.

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