How Television Fast Food Marketing Aimed at Children Compares with Adult Advertisements

Television ads for fast-food children's meals were compared with adult advertisements to assess companies' compliance with self-regulatory pledges.

The Issue:

Fast-food marketing can have an impact on children's food preferences and behaviors. The food and beverage industry has initiated some programs to self-regulate their marketing, including the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI). This study examined national television advertisements from the top 25 U.S. quick-service restaurant (QSR) chains, to assess whether companies were complying with their self-regulatory pledges.

Key Findings

  • A total of three QSR advertised children's meals: McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway. Together, McDonald’s and Burger King were responsible for 99 percent of the ads for children's meals.

  • McDonald’s aired 44,062 ads, and 40 percent were aimed at kids. Burger King aired 37,210 ads, with 21 percent aimed at kids.

  • Four children’s television stations—Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney XD, and Nicktoons—aired 79 percent of the advertisements aimed at children.

  • Sixty-nine percent of ads aimed at kids included mention of toy giveaways. Movie tie-ins were present in 55 percent of children’s advertisements, compared with 14 percent in adult advertisements.

  • Ads targeting children also were more likely to include strong branding. Images of food packaging were present in 88 percent of ads aimed at children, compared with 23 percent of ads targeting adults.


The self-regulatory system encourages advertisements to focus on actual food products instead of premiums and tie-ins. The authors concluded that McDonald's and Burger King "did not follow through with their self-regulatory promises during the study period."

About the Study:

This study assessed national television advertisements for the top 25 QSR chains that aired between July 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010. Those advertising meals for children were compared with adult advertisements from the same company. Two coders evaluated all advertisements, conducting visual and audio assessments of branding, toy premiums, movie tie-ins, and depictions of food.

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