The fast food industry continues to use images of free toys, cartoons, and movie characters in order to appeal to children, according to a new study commissioned by the Roberts Woods Johnson Foundation. Almost 70 percent of the fast food ads targeted at kids include free toys or other giveaways, while the advertisements for adults tend to simply focus on the food itself.
Researchers found that McDonald’s and Burger King were responsible for nearly all of the advertising concerning kid’s meals. McDonald’s had the strongest presence in this market, with 40 percent of the company’s overall ads targeted specifically to children.
Compared to ads intended for an adult audience, the kids’ ads tended to more prominently feature branding — which makes sense, since advertising can go a long way toward cultivating children’s tastes for a particular product or company. Images of food packaging were featured in 88 percent of the ads directed at kids, but appeared in just 23 percent of the adult ads. Forty one percent of the ads directed at kids included an image of the street view of the restaurant, while just 12 percent of the adult ads did the same.
The findings troubled the public health researchers, who said there needs to be more oversight of the fast food industry’s advertising tactics. “Given health concerns about obesity and its relation to fast-food consumption, enhanced oversight of fast-food marketing to children at the local, state and federal level is needed to align advertising to children with health promotion efforts and existing principles of honest and fair marketing to children,” they wrote.
In 2006, several food industry giants — including McDonald’s and Burger King — pledged to advertise only healthier products to kids, but several outside studies have found that they’re not actually following through. The World Health Organization has warned that marketing fast food to kids has been “disastrously effective,” and has ultimately directly contributed to the global obesity epidemic.
Public health researchers aren’t the only ones getting frustrated with this dynamic. At McDonald’s annual shareholders meeting in June, a nine-year-old girl asked the company’s CEO why he continued to market unhealthy food to children. “I don’t think it’s fair when big companies try to trick kids into eating food that isn’t good for them by using toys and cartoon characters,” the fourth grader said. McDonald’s CEO deferred, responding that his chain doesn’t market to kids and doesn’t sell junk food.