Marketing Cardiovascular Mortality? Healthy vs. Unhealthy Food in Television Advertising
Keywords:Obesity, Healthful diet, Nutrition, Quarantine Diet
Background:Cardiovascular disease has been the leading killer of Americans since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. During the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, social distancing and stay-at-home requests, there has been increased television (TV) engagement, and marketing has become more impactful in modifying consumer behaviors.
Objective: We evaluated the healthfulness of food marketing, based on commercials most frequently aired on American primetime networks during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.
Methods:We reviewed a total of 104 TV commercials, 89 chosen randomly during TV watching and 14 targeted to enrich the sample with the leading quick service restaurants (“fast-food chains”). The commercials fell into 4 categories: 1) fast-food chains, 2) brand-recognized individual items, 3) grocery chains, and 4) home-delivery meals. The food items displayed in each commercial were recorded and scored based on the previously validated healthful versus unhealthful nutrition scoring system, assigning either positive or negative values for each food item in the commercial.
Results:We found that 58% of the commercials advertised fast-food chains (mean score = -3.1, i.e., 3.1 more unhealthy than healthy items per commercial), while 27% were brand-recognized individual items (-0.82), 9% were grocery chains (-0.4), and 6% were for home-delivery meals (0.83); each was less unhealthy than fast-food (p< 0.0001).
Conclusions:Commercial TV in the US routinely promotes the consumption of foods that are known to be unhealthy, particularly those underpinning cardiovascular disease and its risk factors. Regulation and/or legislation to curtail the frequency and/or content of these commercials, and consider a ban on such advertising to children, similar to that previously employed in Canada and the European Union.