A report from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity finds that children as young as 2 are seeing more fast-food ads than ever before, and that fast-food restaurants rarely offer parents the healthy kids’ meal choices. Report findings show that fast-food marketers target children across a variety of media and in restaurants, and that restaurants provide largely unhealthy side dishes and drinks as the default options that come with kids’ meals. The new report is the most comprehensive study of fast-food nutrition and marketing ever undertaken.

The report, titled Fast Food F.A.C.T.S. (Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score), examined the marketing efforts of 12 of the nation’s largest fast-food chains, and analyzed the calories, fat, sugar and sodium in more than 3,000 kids’ meal combinations and 2,781 menu items. It also analyzed marketing practices of the 12 major chains. Some of the key findings include:

  • The fast-food industry spent more than $4.2 billion dollars on marketing and advertising in 2009, focusing extensively on television, the Internet, social media sites and mobile applications.
  • At least 30 percent of calories in menu items purchased by children and teens are from sugar and saturated fat.
  • The healthy side dish and beverage options for kids’ meals are rarely offered as the defaults.
  • The average preschooler sees almost three ads per day for fast food; children ages 6-11 see three and a half; and teens ages 12-17 see almost five.
  • Kids ages 6-11 see 264 child-targeted ads from McDonald’s, 125 from Burger King and 32 from Subway each year. In total, they see 368 McDonald’s ads, 185 Burger King ads and 127 Subway ads.
  • Compared with 2007, in 2009 preschoolers saw 21 percent more ads for McDonald’s, 9 percent more for Burger King, and 56 percent more for Subway. Children ages 6-11 saw 26 percent more ads for McDonald’s, 10 percent more for Burger King, and 59 percent more for Subway. These increases are especially notable for McDonald’s and Burger King, which have pledged to reduce unhealthy marketing to children.
  • Hispanic preschoolers see 290 Spanish-language fast-food TV ads each year. McDonald’s is responsible for one-quarter of young people’s exposure to Spanish-language fast-food advertising.
  • African-American children and teens see at least 50 percent more fast-food ads than their white peers. McDonald’s and KFC in particular specifically target African-American youth with TV advertising, targeted Web sites and banner ads.

The report authors also offer recommendations for transforming the restaurant and marketing landscapes, including:

  • Fast-food restaurants must establish meaningful standards for child-targeted marketing that apply to all fast-food restaurants—not just those who already participate in industry self-regulation.
  • Fast-food restaurants must do more to develop and promote lower-calorie, more nutritious menu items.
  • Fast-food restaurants must do more to promote their lower-calorie and more nutritious menu items inside the restaurants, where young people and parents make their final purchase decisions.

The findings were presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association. The report was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Rudd Foundation.