So says Susan M. Connor, PhD, of Case Western Reserve University's pediatrics department and Children's Hospital in Cleveland.
Pediatricians should encourage parents to "carefully consider the many advertising messages with which even the youngest children are bombarded each day," Connor writes.
Connor analyzed all promotional spots shown during shows for preschoolers on three networks -- Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
Promotional spots included commercial advertisements (shown only on Nickelodeon) and sponsors' announcements (shown on PBS and Disney).
The shows aired from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. during four randomly chosen weekdays in May 2005. They included 130 food ads, more than half of which targeted children (76 ads).
Fun Takes Center Stage
Most of the food ads for kids were for fast-food chains (50 ads) or sweetened cereals, Connor writes.
Those food ads typically linked the products to fun, happiness, energy, and excitement, often with an appealing "licensed character," such as Tony the Tiger or Ronald McDonald, Connor notes.
She says the ads "seemed to focus on building brand recognition and positive associations, through the use of licensed characters, logos, and slogans."
"The majority of child-oriented food advertisements viewed seemed to take a branding approach, focusing on creating lifelong customers rather than generating immediate sales," Connor writes.
She didn't talk to network executives, advertisers, or the people who created those ads to see if branding was, indeed, their goal.
Ads on all three networks "took similar approaches and used similar appeals, seeming to promote the equation that food equals fun and happiness," Connor writes.
Helping Kids Understand Ads
Kids are impressionable and may need their parents' help to understand ads, Connor notes.
She writes that "preschool-aged children are uniquely susceptible to advertising" and may have a hard time telling commercials from programs and reality from fiction.
"Preschool-aged children are likely to view advertisements as objective statements of fact, that is, unbiased informational pieces designed to tell them about a toy or food product, and lack the ability to comprehend an advertisement's intent to sell."