Companies that have pledged not to market unhealthy food and drinks directly to children may be turning to product placement on television shows instead of traditional ads to target youngsters, a new study showed.

This type of disguised advertising, including high exposure to sugary soft drinks on prime-time TV, is a major contributing factor to childhood obesity, according to the Yale University study released Tuesday.

“It is a very subtle message that kids aren’t likely to get,” said Jennifer Harris, a co-author of the study and director of marketing initiatives at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

The Yale study aimed to quantify how many product placements appear on prime-time TV and also determine how many of those that kids actually see.

Researchers analysed Nielsen media data from 2008 and found some 35,000 brand placements had appeared on US prime-time television that year.

Children tend to see about 14 traditional advertisements for food and beverages each day on television compared to one of these product placements, it said.

But children don’t yet have the cognitive ability to understand that the popular soda, candy and snack brands they see on prime-time shows are a means of advertising.

“It is even more difficult for younger children to understand this is advertising and that it is persuading them to do something that isn’t the best thing for them,” Harris said.

Despite most major food companies pledging not to pay for unhealthy food ads in children’s programing, brand appearances in prime-time shows and sportscasts viewed by a wide audience, including kids, is exposing them to these products anyway, Harris said.

Harris said Coca-Cola product placements on popular US talent show American Idol was the most viewed brand. Children saw five times as many product placements as they did traditional, paid television commercials for Coca-Cola products.

Roughly one-third of children in the United States are overweight or obese, said Harris. Drinking sugar-sweetened beverages puts kids at greater risk for obesity, but also long-term health problems like diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, she said.

The study will appear in the September issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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