Study: Fast-Food Ads Target Kids with Unhealthy Food, and It Works

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A team of public health researchers from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity spent more than a year compiling data on 12 of the nation’s big fast-food restaurants, and what they found surprised even them: despite industry efforts to reduce marketing aimed at children, fast-food advertising geared toward 2-to-18-year-olds increased.

The research focused on menu composition, external advertising, in-store marketing and consumer behavior for McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, KFC, Taco Bell, Dairy Queen, Sonic, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. (More on No Vegetable, No Toy: San Francisco Mimics Parents Everywhere).

The L.A. Times reports:

In 2009 preschoolers saw 56% more ads for Subway, 21% more ads for McDonald’s and 9% more ads for Burger King, compared with 2007. Children age 6 to 11 saw even more: 59% more ads for Subway, 26% more for McDonald’s and 10% more for Burger King.

The report also found that African American kids and teens are exposed to at least 50% more fast food ads than their white counterparts.

The marketing seems to be working: a whopping 40% of parents reported that their child asked to go to McDonald’s at least once a week, and 15% of preschoolers’ parents said they fielded such a request every day. Most of the parents gave in: 84% reported bringing their 2-to-11-year-olds to a fast food restaurant within the previous week. (More on Judge to McDonald’s: Pay $17,500 For Making Your Employee Fat).

Eating fast food has pretty much become routine for many families, the researchers found. One-third of children and teens reported consuming fast food at least once a week, and 16% to 17% of adolescents’ caloric intake came from fast food restaurants. On an average visit to a fast-food restaurant, teens ordered 800 to 1,100 calories in a single meal (30% of which came from saturated fat or sugar) — that’s half of their recommended daily caloric intake.

“[Going to a fast food restaurant] is no longer a special event, it’s ingrained in our culture and that’s why it’s of concern,” said Kelly Brownell, co-founder and director of the Rudd Center. (More on Do Parents Discriminate Against Their Own Chubby Children?).

Researchers’ investigations also revealed that of 3,039 possible meal combinations intended for children (such as McDonald’s Happy Meal), only 12 met nutritional criteria the researchers set for preschoolers and 15 met the criteria for older children. Of the 12 that were deemed healthy for kids, all were from Subway or Burger King, and all were variations that included one of two main components: the Subway’s Veggie DeLite sandwich or Burger King’s mac and cheese

Brownell says the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is now looking into designating children as a “protected” group in order to shield them from advertising of unhealthy foods. While fast-food purveyors may have reduced advertising during traditional kids shows, researchers found that youngsters were still being exposed to similar ads geared at adults and teens during TV shows like American Idol or televised sports events — a phenomenon the researchers call “secondhand exposure.” (More on Which School Lunch Bill Is Best?).

And although restaurants like McDonald’s and Burger King pledged to reduce marketing to kids, that related primarily to television advertising. But these companies maintain active presences online: McDonald’s has 13 different websites targeted at various age groups; one site,, is specifically designed for preschoolers. Together, McDonald’s family of websites got 365,000 unique visitors aged 12 or younger per month and 249,000 teen visitors, the new report found. Nine of the 12 restaurant chains studies also had at least 1,000,000 “fans” on Facebook; Starbucks lead with 13 million fans. What’s more, banner ads for fast food on websites for Nickelodeon and Disney attracted “tens of millions” of unique visitors per month, according to Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of Rudd.

In addition to digital marketing, fast-food restaurants relied heavily on in-store marketing to kids — tactics like putting toys in Happy Meals (a move that San Francisco recently moved to ban). “Companies are saying, ‘We don’t advertise to children,’ but all they are really talking about is what they have in TV commercials. So to say that, ‘We take this product, we put it in a colorful box and we add a toy to it, but, no, we’re not marketing it to children’ — it’s a little bit disingenuous,” she said. (More on Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food).

The end goal of fast-food marketing is to improve brand affinity starting at an early age, the researchers found. In fact, much of the chains’ advertising was targeted at parents — the thinking is that the more exposure Mom and Dad have, the more routine fast food dining would seem. It helps also that the current generation of new parents is the first to have grown up with exposure to fast-food advertising themselves. These parents already have a built-in childhood connection to companies like McDonald’s.

And that’s bad news for everyone: constant exposure to fast-food marketing helps normalize the kind of eating behavior associated with such such restaurants. It makes outsized portions look normal and encourages snacking: Taco Bell even has an ad campaign based around the concept of a fourth daily meal. (More on SPECIAL — We Are What We Eat).

How can this trend be reversed? Brownell believes it requires a shift in public attitude, combined with legislative action to end advertising targeted to kids. “Children are simply too big a target for them,” he said. “We need to redefine what child-targeting marketing is and companies need to stop marketing to preschoolers entirely. [Change] will either [come from] public outcry or legislation.”

For more, see the Rudd Center report here.