Forget the Food: Fast Food Ads Aimed at Kids Feature Lots of Giveaways

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Brian Hagiwara / Jupiterimages

There’s nothing like a picture of a steaming, juicy burger to send hungry folks to the nearest drive-thru, right? Not if you’re a kid. For them, toys and other giveaways are just as effective — which is why such marketing tactics are so troubling.

A new study published in journal PLOS One revealed that compared to nationally televised advertisements from leading fast food restaurants targeted at adults, those that marketed kids’ meals were more likely to include toy and other giveaways, and less likely to feature the food products sold at these chains. Between 2009 and 2010, when the scientists conducted their analysis, nearly all of the fast food ads –99%–that were aired nationally on children’s TV channels such as Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, were from McDonald’s and Burger King, and 70% of them included toy giveaways, frequently linked to child-friendly movies, to promote their product.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, food marketing cannot be false, deceptive or unfair. But there are other, more specific, self-regulations out there for ads related to kids. The Beverage Business Bureau (BBB) runs a Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) that provides marketing guidelines for companies on how they should advertise products to kids, and many volunteer to self-regulate their campaigns based on these guidelines. One of these bedrocks asks companies to recognize that children do not easily discern between products like toys and games that are associated with a company’s primary products — in this case, fast food. That means that the toys may actually hold more allure for younger consumers than the food itself. While that’s certainly a boon for corporations, it may not be so benign for kids, who could end up developing life-long unhealthy eating habits.

(MORE: Healthy Lifestyle Ads From Big Soda: Hypocritical or Helpful?)

“Research shows that when companies are promoting brand-oriented messages to children, [kids] make very long-lasting and deeply held emotional connections to the brand,” says Andrew Cheyne, a researcher at the Berkeley Media Studies Group. “So this form of marketing allows for kids to make lifelong brand preferences at a very early age. Not only are the fast food companies making lifelong customers out of children, but they have the ability to go after the childrens’ children as well through intergenerational brand preferences. This form of marketing is a very serious concern.”

In a 2011 study of Santa Clara county, which banned toys and other- non-food items from fast food restaurants’ kids meals, researchers found that food options in that county became healthier after the ban compared to counties that didn’t have to follow the rule. When they couldn’t offer toys with high calorie, high-fat meals, Santa Clara restaurants began offering more healthier options to go with the giveaways.

“Kids cannot recognize the intent of advertising. When you add in popular cartoon characters, you are further blurring the line,” says study author Cara Wilking of the Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI). Processed food packaging that display images of popular culture characters kids like and recognize. “Unilever (a consumer goods company) says they are going to improve their marketing to children, but they have a loophole for packaging. When they put Dora the Explorer on Popsicle boxes, it certainly seems like advertising to kids. If that’s not, what is?” says Cheyne.

(MORE: Disney’s Diet: No More Junk Food Ads on Kids Channels)

In a paper published in PLoS Medicine, Cheyne, who is unaffiliated with the latest study, argues that such blending strategies are becoming more widespread; soda manufacturers sponsor social responsibility campaigns that promote community service, and advertising in schools is another way that companies enhance brand awareness among kids without actually promoting their product. “They’re sponsoring fundraisers, they’re promoting themselves through score boards and other signage. When they promote the brand, they promote the entire product line,” he says.

For example, PepsiCo was criticized by public health advocates for the Refresh Project promoted during the 2010 Superbowl. The company offered $20 million to consumer-voted community projects such as improving parks and reinvigorating local arts programs, and allowed voters who bought specially marked cans of soda to have greater voting power. Not surprisingly, the bulk of participants were young people. “PepsiCo considers millennials — those aged 11 to 31 — a ‘key cohort’ for the Pepsi Refresh initiative. The company applied specific marketing metrics to measure the positive effect the campaign had on the intent of millennials to buy PepsiCo products,” Cheyne told TIME then.

(MORE: Study: How Soda Companies’ Social Responsibility Campaigns Are Harming Your Health)

The concerns about these marketing tactics prompted at least one major child-friendly company to take action. Walt Disney Co. pledged to ban all junk food advertising from its TV channels, websites and radio programs catering to children by 2015. All companies that advertise food and beverages during Disney programming will have to meet the company’s nutritional guidelines. The candy company Mars is also credited with having one of the most comprehensive and strict pledges to avoid catering to kids under age 12 in its marketing campaigns.

Whether such moves will change children’s eating behaviors, and make unhealthy foods less appealing, won’t be clear for a few more years. But if these pioneering efforts to redirect advertising aimed at kids toward healthier and more nutritious options prove successful, then they could set a precedent for advertising that’s truly kid-friendly.