Princeton, N.J.—Fast-food companies emphasize toy giveaways and movie tie-ins when marketing to kids on television, which suggests industry is not abiding by its own pledges regarding child-directed marketing, according to a study published today in PLOS ONE. Researchers found that McDonald’s and Burger King were responsible for nearly all of the ads for children’s meals, and that 69 percent of those ads featured toy giveaways and 55 percent included movie tie-ins.
The study, “How Television Fast Food Marketing Aimed at Children Compares with Adult Advertisements,” was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) through its Healthy Eating Research program.
“Fast-food companies use free toys and popular movies to appeal to kids, and their ads are much more focused on promotions, brands, and logos—not on the food,” said James Sargent, MD, professor of pediatrics at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and lead author of the study. “These are techniques that the companies’ own self-regulatory body calls potentially misleading.”
Leaders of the food and beverage industry have publicly recognized the need to reform marketing practices targeting children. In 2006, the Council of Better Business Bureaus launched the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a voluntary pledge by major food manufacturers to advertise only healthier products to children. McDonald’s and Burger King participate in the CFBAI. Both companies also have pledged to abide by marketing guidelines set by the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), which include a provision stating that food—not toys or other promotions—should be the primary focus of ads directed at kids. CARU is a self-regulatory program funded by members of the children’s advertising industry.
Sargent and his colleagues examined all nationally televised ads for children’s meals by leading fast-food restaurants for one year, from July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010. They compared ads aimed at kids to ads aimed at adults from the same companies to assess whether self-regulatory pledges for food marketing to children had been implemented.
Key findings include:
- Nearly all (99%) of the ads that aired during the study period were attributable to either McDonald’s (70%) or Burger King (29%).
- McDonald’s had the strongest emphasis on the children’s market, with 40 percent of its 44,062 ads aimed at kids, compared with 21 percent of 37,210 aired ads for Burger King.
- Seventy-nine percent of the fast-food ads aimed at kids aired on only four channels: Cartoon Network (32.3%), Nickelodeon (18.3%), Disney XD (16.2%), and Nicktoons (12.4%).
- Compared with fast-food ads for adults, ads targeting kids emphasized branding, and the food images were smaller. For example:
- Images of food packaging were present in 88 percent of ads directed at kids and 23 percent of ads for adults.
- A street view of the restaurant appeared in 41 percent of ads directed at kids and 12 percent of ads for adults.
- Food images averaged 20 percent of the screen diagonal in kids’ ads, but 45 percent of the screen diagonal in adult ads.
“This study adds to a growing body of research indicating that there is a great deal more industry can do, and must do, to make good on their promise to reduce the powerful marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to our children,” said C. Tracy Orleans, PhD, senior scientist at RWJF.
A recent report by the Federal Trade Commission and issue brief by Bridging the Gap and the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity found that, when marketing to children and teens, the food and beverage industry spends the bulk of its money to promote unhealthy products. The research shows that among all U.S. food and beverage companies, fast-food companies spend the most on marketing directed at youths ages 2 to 17—more than $714 million in 2009. The research also shows that while some fast-food companies have slightly improved the nutritional quality of kids’ meals, the number of child-targeted television ads for other higher-calorie meals and menu items has more than doubled from 2006 to 2009.