Did the researchers successfully identify product placement in movies as a cause of childhood obesity? No. But they did discover that most of the "brand placements" for food, beverage, and food retail establishments that are frequently portrayed in movies are for energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods or product lines. I guess that's close enough.
Of the 200 movies analyzed, the teams results revealed that 138 contained at least 1 food, beverage, or food retail establishment brand. Movies that carried a PG-13 or R rating were much more likely to contain brand placements than movies in other rating categories.
In total, the study identified 1180 brand placements, including 427 food, 425 beverage, and 328 food retail establishment brand placements. Sugar sweetened beverages were the most prevalent beverage brands (76%) Candy/confections (26%) and salty snacks (21%) were the most prevalent food brands, and fast food composed two thirds of the food retail establishment brand placements. The study also revealed that six companies accounted for 45 percent of all brand placements and included PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestle USA, McDonald's, Dr. Pepper/Snapple Group and Burger King.
The authors suggest that advertising of this kind is troubling because it appears in movies that are aimed at children. By pointing to a number of studies that focused on other health-related behaviors in movies, they also say it is well established that children who view these risky behaviors in movies are more likely to engage in the behaviors themselves.
But again, the problem with this research as with so much before it is that it proves absolutely nothing about the relationship between advertising and children's eating habits. Sure, movies contain a lot of advertising for candy, salty snacks, and soda. So what? Previous studies have gone one step further by drawing a correlation between advertising and the unhealthy behavior (whether it be smoking, drinking, or overeating) but never prove that seeing a coke can or a cigarette on the screen motivates kids to engage in the behavior. In order to demonstrate that link, experimental studies actually have to be conducted.
The authors of the current study conclude that children are susceptible to outside influences (product placement being one) that may contribute to unhealthy lifestyle choices. They say that "food-product placement in movies is one of many factors, but it is one that may be far more influential than previously realized and perhaps the least well understood."
So while everyone is trying to the ratchet up the health hazards posed by advertising in movies, is it possible that the actual causes of childhood obesity are being ignored? Shaming evil corporations for their pernicious advertising may seem sexy, but what about the parents who constantly feed their kids unhealthy food? That lack of parenting is almost certainly more relevant to a child's health, yet it receives much less attention.
The reality is, people need to take more responsibility for themselves and their children and as a society we need to stop scapegoating things like advertising. Anything else is a complete waste of time.
Citation: Sutherland et al., ''Prevalence of Food and Beverage Brands in Movies: 1996–2005', Pediatrics, February 2010; doi:10.1542/peds.2009-0857