Despite pledges not to mislead children about the benefits of consuming their products, cereal companies market unhealthy foods by exploiting kids’ imaginations and limited cognitive abilities, according to a recent study by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

Published on July 26 in the online Journal of Health Communication, the study reveals that 91 percent of the high-sugar cereal ads viewed by children ascribe unrealistic powers to the products. Companies are feeding children messages that are deceptive and fantastical, leading children to believe that a cereal can improve their popularity or give them magical powers, study lead author and Rudd Center research associate Megan LoDolce said.

According to the Children’s Advertising Review Unit — a self-regulatory program aiming to promote responsible children’s advertising — “advertising should not stimulate children’s unreasonable expectations about product quality or performance.” Both General Mills, Inc and Kellogg Company are listed as CARU Supporters on the program’s website, and these two leading cereal companies are also participants of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a program launched in 2006 to limit child-directed advertising of unhealthy foods.

By identifying the products, messages, creative techniques and eating behaviors that were presented in 158 different cereal ads, researchers at The Rudd Center found that cereal companies — including General Mills, Inc and Kellogg Company — are not adhering to CARU’s principles. Researchers found that cereals targeted to children contain 85 percent more sugar than those marketed to adults, and the ads targeted toward children are more likely to endow the products with special powers — such as magically transforming into cartoon characters or increasing a child’s popularity.

“The companies are really taking advantage of kids’ imaginations and vulnerability to misleading messages by making these unhealthy foods seem like fun and parts of magical adventures,” study co-author and Rudd Center Director of Marketing Initiatives Jennifer Harris said.

Prior research by the Institute of Medicine suggests that advertising can shape a child’s food preferences. Young children in particular do not have the cognitive abilities to distinguish advertising from entertainment, and repeated exposure to high-sugar cereal ads can cause them to normalize unhealthy eating behaviors. Because children are more vulnerable to misleading messages, LoDolce said, it is important that CFBAI and CARU do a better job of ensuring that kids are not exposed to unhealthy products and deceptive messages.

Scientific studies at other institutions have also found that self-regulatory pledges of child-directed advertisements are not being implemented. A recent study by the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth found that children’s fast food advertising focused on toy-giveaways or movie tie-ins rather than the actual food product. James Sargent, a professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School and one of the researchers on this study, said both the Dartmouth and Rudd Center research demonstrate the ineffectiveness of CARU.

“While CARU explicitly states that advertising to children should focus on the product — not tie-ins, toy premiums or implications that using the product is fun — their self-regulation process fails to weed out ads that clearly violate the language of their own guidelines,” Sargent said in a Saturday email to the News.

The solution to this self-regulation problem has been met with controversy. Public health advocates have attempted to get the government involved in regulating child-directed advertisements, but Harris said the industry has lobbied against it.

“It’s still important to keep doing the research and for the advocates to keep focusing on this issue because when you bring attention to what the companies are doing, it causes the industry to improve,” Harris said.

This study was funded by grants from the Rudd Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.