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Fast-food Marketers Promoting Unhealthy Foods To Kids

November 9, 2010

A new study from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity finds that children as young as 2 years of age are seeing more fast food ads than ever before, with restaurants rarely offering parents the healthier kids’ meal choices.

The study, the most comprehensive evaluation of fast food nutrition and marketing ever conducted, shows that fast food marketers are routinely targeting children across a wide variety of media and in restaurants.

The report also found that restaurants provide primarily unhealthy defaults for the side dishes and drinks that accompany kids’ meals.

“Despite pledges to improve their marketing practices, fast food companies seem to be stepping up their efforts to target kids,” said lead researcher Jennifer Harris, Ph.D., M.B.A., director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center.

“Today, preschoolers see 21% more fast food ads on TV than they saw in 2003, and somewhat older children see 34% more.”

Harris and her colleagues analyzed the marketing initiatives of 12 of the nation’s largest fast food chains, and examined the calories, fat, sugar and sodium content in more than 3,000 kids’ meal combinations and 2,781 menu items.   

They found that the fast food industry spent more than $4.2 billion on marketing and advertising in 2009, focusing extensively on television, the Internet, social media sites and mobile applications.

“Our results show that the fast food industry’s promises to market less unhealthy food to young people are not enough,” said Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., the study’s co-author and director and co-founder of the Rudd Center.

“If they truly wish to be considered partners in public health, fast food restaurants need to drastically reduce the total amount of marketing that children and teens see for fast food and the iconic brands that sell it,” she said.

The researchers measured youth exposure to marketing and advertising messages from all restaurants by using syndicated data from the Nielsen Company, comScore Inc. and Arbitron Inc.  When information was unavailable, independent studies were applied, along with content analyses and restaurant audits.

The study’s authors concluded that unhealthy foods and beverages continue to dominate fast food restaurant menus, and that fast food restaurant environments do not help guide customers toward their healthier food choices.   Furthermore, marketing efforts geared towards young people are highly effective, and are increasing to dramatic levels.

Among the study’s key findings are:

- Out of 3,039 possible kids’ meal combinations, only 12 meet the researchers’ nutrition criteria for preschoolers, while just 15 meet nutrition criteria for older children.

- Teens ages 13-17 purchase 800-1,100 calories in an average fast food meal, approximately half of their recommended total daily calories.

- At least 30% of the calories in menu items purchased by children and teens come from sugar and saturated fat.

- At most fast food restaurants, a single meal contains at least half of young people’s daily-recommended allowance of sodium.

- Preschoolers saw 21% more ads in 2009 than they did in 2007 for McDonald’s, 9% more for Burger King, and 56% more for Subway.  Children aged 6-11 saw 26% more ads for McDonald’s, 10% more for Burger King, and 59% more for Subway.

- Fast food advertising targeting preschoolers focuses on building brand loyalty, rather than promoting specific food items.

- McDonalds’ 13 websites receive 365,000 unique child visitors aged 2-11 each month, and 294,000 unique teen visitors aged 12-17. 

- Targeted marketing for fast food begins as young as age 2 with websites such as McDonalds’ Ronald.com.

- Hispanic preschoolers see 290 Spanish-language fast food TV ads annually, with McDonald’s alone responsible for one-quarter of young people’s exposure to Spanish-language fast food ads.

- African American children and teens see at least 50% more fast food ads than white children and teens.  McDonald’s and KFC, in particular, target African American youth with TV ads, targeted Web sites and banner ads.

The detailed findings of the study, which was supported by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Rudd Foundation, were presented Monday in Denver during the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association.

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