Fast Food Companies Relying on Social Media to Target Younger Consumers

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Kids are seeing fewer ads for fast food on television, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t targeted as consumers in other ways.

There are healthier options to go along with the fries and burgers — and even a slimmed down french fry, but a new study from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity says fast food restaurants are still targeting young kids in marketing campaigns.

The report, called “Fast Food FACTS 2013” follows-up the organization’s report from 2010. The researchers studied 18 of the top fast food chains in the U.S. and documented the changes in the nutritional quality of the food they served, as well as their marketing campaigns to kids and teens on TV and online.

Since 2010, kids between the ages of 6 to 11 saw 10% fewer TV ads for fast foods, and more of these ads included healthier meals, such as fruit snacks and salads.

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

But the positive trend also hid some less encouraging news. While the youngest kids were seeing fewer TV ads, older kids and teens still saw about three to five fast food advertisements on television every day. Appeals to teens on social media also surged, and while children saw more advertisements for healthier fast food options, these made up only a quarter of the fast food ads viewed by these kids, and only 1% of kids’ meals at these chains met healthy nutritional standards.

The results highlight the challenge that families face in improving children’s diets, as such enticements to consume high calorie, high fat meals continue to surround them. A recent study published in the journal PLOS One reported, for example, that fast food ads targeting kids were more likely to include toys and giveaways, which are a nearly irresistible draw for younger kids. And research suggests that these types of marketing campaigns seed lasting emotional connections to brands, making children more likely to continue eating at fast food chains and take their own families there as adults.

“There were some improvements, but they have been small, and the pace too slow,” Marlene Schwartz, Rudd Center director said in a statement. “Without more significant changes, we are unlikely to see meangingful reductions in unhealthy fast food consumption by young people.”