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Professor Avery Holton Featured in Forbes Story on Dangerous Parenting Ads

A Forbes story published Oct. 30 examining the impact of visuals and advertisements on parents prominently featured Professor Avery Holton, who researches health communication and media influence. 

avery holtonTitled, "How Magazine Ads Are Bad For Your Kids," the piece cited recent research that found one out of every six advertisements in the most popular US parenting magazines illustrate a scene or endorse a product that violates a policy recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics. That’s more than 300 ads in just two years’ worth of the magazine’s issues.

Read an excerpt of the story below to see Dr. Holton's insight and read the full story here.

"Whether it was toddlers reaching into a big bowl of popcorn or a baby sleeping amidst a sea of stuffed animals, the ads conveyed a message contradicting what the nation’s largest group of pediatricians has deemed safe and appropriate for children — and more than half of them showed potentially life-threatening situations.

Consider these examples:

  • Children under age 7 eating or picking up popcorn
  • Gummy vitamin ads recommending the product for age 2 and up, since the AAP recommends no gummy food items until age 4.
  • Herbal flower drops advertised to treat daydreaming in kids. (Yes, really.)
  • Images with children under age 8 holding latex balloons, a choking hazard.
  • Any image with a trampoline since the AAP recommends against trampoline use
  • Children standing up in the main compartment of grocery ad forbes story

Clearly, industry does pay attention when there’s enough awareness about an issue, researchers found. Between 2009 and 2014, for example, one team found a steep drop in violations of AAP’s safe infant sleep recommendations, from 19 ads in 2009 to 1 ad in 2014.

'[Homing] in on those improvements and exploring why they have been made versus others could help holistically improve compliance across the board,' said Avery Holton, PhD, a professor studying media effects and health communication at the University of Utah. While Holton wasn’t surprised at the overall findings, the proportion of life-threatening situations did startle him.

'You would expect to see spotty violations here and there, but you would also expect to see much lower numbers in terms of violations that are considered life-threatening versus those that are not necessarily immediate threats to a child’s well-being,' Holton said.

And pictures do matter, he said.

'We already know that a vast majority of the public seek out health information from the mass media, particularly resources that are perceived to be authorities in parenting such as parenting magazines and websites,' Holton said. 'So it’s important that these outlets, as well as those contributing to them, are rigorous in the content they provide. That content can change parental beliefs and behaviors, and visuals can play a strong role in that.'

Simply portraying images that jibe with AAP recommendations does not guarantee that readers of these magazines will suddenly follow those recommendations, Holton cautioned. But seeing images that conflict with what a doctor says (perhaps even subconsciously), can 'possibly raise anxiety levels, and, in extreme cases, change parental behaviors in negative ways,' Holton said.

'Social scientists, physicians, and number of others have been trying for years to figure out ways to positively change health behaviors and outcomes using visuals. What they’ve found is sort of a mixed bag,' Holton said. “What’s for certain, though, is that images can be powerful tools to help explain complex health issues and to potentially drive changes in beliefs and behaviors.'

See all of the advertising policy statements on the American Academy of Pediatrics' website for parents,

Last Updated: 9/20/21