Frequently Asked Questions

What is this research about?
This is a comprehensive study of the nutrition and marketing of children's cereals, specifically focusing on changes that have taken place since 2009. This report presents the nutrient quality of cereals, evaluates the products marketed to children as compared to those marketed to adults, quantifies young people's exposure to cereal marketing, and describes the various marketing practices used to reach children and their parents. The data collected for this report were from 2011 and early 2012.

How do you define a "child" brand?
This research makes a fundamental distinction between brands marketed directly to children (i.e., child brands); those marketed to parents and adults as appropriate to feed their children and/or families (i.e., family brands); and those marketed to adults for adult consumption only (i.e., adult brands). We consider a cereal a child brand if children are disproportionately targeted by the company in their marketing of the brand.

Why are you concerned only with child brands?
Due to their earlier state in cognitive development, children are more vulnerable to the influence of marketing. Children have a more difficult time than adults distinguishing between entertainment and marketing content on television. In addition, lifelong taste preferences and brand loyalties are being established in childhood. Hence, foods marketed to children should be held to a higher standard.

Why breakfast cereals?
Children see more advertising for breakfast cereals than for any other category of packaged food. Cereal companies spent $264 million to advertise children's cereals in 2011. They market extensively using TV, the Internet, social media, packaging, and in-store promotions.

How did you objectively determine what makes a healthy cereal?
Central to this research is the evaluation of the nutrient content of 261 ready-to-eat cereals offered by 11 companies in the United States, and comparison of the quality of child, family, and adult brands to each other. We reviewed the scientific literature on how to score foods for their nutrition and believe that the best scientifically-validated system is the nutrient profiling system used in the United Kingdom. This nutrition profiling system was developed by Rayner and colleagues at Oxford University and is used by government in the United Kingdom to determine which foods can be marketed to children on television.

How did you assess all the ways that companies market to children?
We analyzed data for advertising spend on all media. Additionally, we analyzed data for television advertising and marketing on the internet (including cereal company websites, advertising on other websites, and social media), which represent the majority of cereal companies' total youth marketing budgets. These  areas were examined to quantify companies' overall marketing to children.

Young people's exposure to advertising for individual brands was documented using licensed syndicated media research data, including television ratings data from Nielsen and data from comScore Media Metrix and Ad Metrix to document website and internet advertising exposure.

Does this study rank companies and cereals based on nutrition or marketing?
Both. This research provides separate rankings for cereal nutrition and marketing practices.

Isn't it obvious that food companies market to children? Why is this news?
Cereal FACTS is novel because it combines data from numerous reliable sources, including syndicated media research data and validated nutrition profiles, and presents it in a usable format for parents, researchers, and advocates. These are the same data sources used by the food industry and advertising agencies in their own research on marketing. The FACTS report allows the public to compare cereal companies to each other and learn more about specific brands.

What about food company pledges to be more responsible in how they market to children?
Through the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) sponsored by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, most of the largest food marketers have pledged to reduce the marketing of the least healthy products to children. This research shows that despite CFBAI pledges, the least healthy cereals are still those marketed most heavily to children. The average child in the U.S. continues to view 1.6 ads on television every day for products with cereal companies' poorest quality nutrition. According to our data, some companies have even increased their television advertising targeted to children.

What about company efforts to make foods healthier?
The larger cereal companies have improved the nutrition of some cereals, but to a small extent. New cereals that companies brought to market, as well as adaptations of existing brands, also failed to meet reasonable nutrition standards.

How was this study funded?
Support for this project was provided by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Rudd Foundation.

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