Sixty-nine percent of the top 200 revenue-grossing US movies that were released between 1996 and 2005 contained ≥1 food, beverage, or FRE brand placement. Although R-rated movies were most likely to have brand placements, we found that a surprising proportion of movies that were targeted to children and adolescents featured brand appearances. Specifically, one third of G-rated movies, more than half (58.5%) of PG-rated movies, and almost three quarters (73.2%) of PG-13–rated movies had brand appearances. Overall, we identified a total 1180 brand placements in 138 movies, the majority of which were for foods or product lines with little nutritional value. Sugar-sweetened beverages, salty snacks, candy/confections, and fast food were the most frequently recorded branded product types. Whereas sparkling waters and fine dining were most often depicted in R-rated movies, soft drink, chips, and fast food brands dominated PG-rated and PG-13–rated movies. Similar to what is advertised during children’s television programming (TVY, TV7, and TVPG34
), our findings demonstrate that popular movies provide yet another medium through which energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods are promoted to children and adolescents.
A number of studies have reported on food and beverage advertising during television programming for children and adolescents.12,13,29,30,35
We found some similarities, including the low nutritional quality of the majority of branded products, but also noted interesting differences. Recent studies that examined television ads during adolescent programming found fast food (23.1%) to top the list35
and ready-to-eat cereals and cereal bars (27%) to be most prevalent during children’s programming.12
In contrast, we found sugar-sweetened beverages composed the largest proportion of all of the brands that we recorded, accounting for 1 of every 4 brand placements that we identified. This is substantially greater than the percentage of television ads devoted to sugar-sweetened beverages, estimated to be 12.3% and 5.6% of ads during adolescent and children’s television programming, respectively.30,35
Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have long-standing commitments not to advertise their soft drink products during children’s television programming, yet sugar-sweetened beverage products from these companies regularly appeared in movies, especially those rated for children and adolescents. We found that fast food brands appeared at approximately the same rate (17%) in movies as that for television advertising to children and adolescents (19%–23%). We, like Powell et al35
and Batada et al,12
also found that McDonald’s and Burger King composed one fifth of all fast food brand placements. What was strikingly similar between brand placements in movies and food and beverage advertising on child and adolescent television programming is the low nutritional quality of the majority of items.12,36
There has been much research and discussion about the potential impact of food and beverage advertising on children’s television. Our findings clearly demonstrate the need to expand this forum to include movies, especially those rated for youth audiences. Of particular concern are the food and beverage product placements in comedies and PG-rated and PG-13–rated movies, which are geared specifically to older children and teenagers, who are gaining independence with respect to their food choices. Although the impact of this type of advertising on children is not known, it provides a likely avenue by which brand loyalty and product preference can be built.
In November 2006, the Better Business Bureau launched the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative to “shift the mix of advertising messaging directed at children to encourage healthier dietary choices and lifestyle choices.”37
Fifteen companies, including Kellogg’s, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Kraft Foods, agreed to the guidelines set forth. This policy, or “pledge,” is a step in the right direction but needs to go further. For product placement, companies will “commit to not paying or actively seeking to place their food or beverages in the program/editorial content of any medium primarily directed to children under 12 for the purposes of promoting the sale of those products.”37
Although this reflects forward movement by industry, the self-regulatory nature of the guidelines allows products that (1) represent healthy dietary choices according to company-developed standards or (2) include healthy lifestyle messages that contradict the products advertised.
This study is not without limitation. First, the goal of this study was to determine the prevalence of food and beverage product placement in movies that might have the potential to affect youth dietary preferences. As such, we coded only branded products, not every single food and beverage occurrence in movies—only those with our defined parameters of product placement. Using this method, we may have underestimated the total food and beverages on-screen, including fruits and vegetables and soft drinks; however, 2 previous studies found that the majority of soft drink on-screen was branded38
and that the total eating occurrences in movies was minimal.39
In addition, we coded only nonalcoholic beverages. A study by Cassady et al38
concluded that branded soft drinks appeared 4 to 5 times more frequently in movies than branded alcoholic drinks but that unbranded alcohol appeared 20 times more often in movies than unbranded soft drinks. On the basis of these findings, we have most likely accurately estimated soft drink placements but underestimated total beverage product placements. Because we did not analyze the nutrition content of specific foods, our food categories and classifications of FREs are fairly broad and may not correspond directly to individuals’ nutritional needs. Finally, although we did not find any significant change in the number of movies with sugar-sweetened beverages, salty snacks, or sweet snacks/desserts over time, we analyzed movies beginning in 1996, when product placement was already fairly standard in movies. Future research should include movies before 1996, perhaps as far back as 1976, when “E.T.” first introduced America to Reese’s Pieces.