A new study out of Ireland shows that young children often recognize unhealthy food brands more easily than healthy ones. This comes as bad news for nutrition advocates in the United States, where data shows kids are being inundated with $4.6 billion worth of fast food ads versus just $367 million of healthy food ads.
The Irish researchers presented 172 young children with food brand logos that are widely advertised in Ireland and asked the kids to name the brand if they could. At all ages, the kids were better at recognizing the less healthy brands.
Nonetheless, an average preschooler watches 2.8 fast food TV ads a day. Kids aged 6 to 11 watch 3.2 a day, and by the time they’re teens, that number rises to 4.8 a day. Six companies make over 70 percent of the ads children and teens see: McDonalds, Subway, Burger King, Domino’s, Yum! Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC), and Wendy’s. In 2012, McDonalds alone spent 2.7 times as much to advertise its food as all fruit, vegetable, bottled water, and milk advertisers combined.
Fast food companies have perfected the art of appealing to kids. Companies are increasingly using games and toys. Television ads are often specifically directed at teens — Taco Bell introduced “Fourth Meal” ads in 2006 with an website that revolved around kids in pajamas wandering the streets at night. Advertising has even reached schools through vending machines stocked with unhealthy chips and candy bars.
Perhaps the creepiest example, though, is the fact that many cereal brands market their sugary products to kids by adjusting the angles of cartoon characters’ eyes so they’re looking directly at kids in grocery stores:
Tactics like those led the World Health Organization to describe fast food marketing in the United States as “disastrously effective.”
Advertising doesn’t affect children equally. Exterior advertising by fast food restaurants — like large posters, banners, or flags — are more prevalent in low-income neighborhoods. Black children, who are more likely to be obese, see around 60 percent more fast food ads than white children. Small children can be especially affected by advertising because although children as young as two can recognize brand logos, they can’t often tell the difference between a TV show and an advertisement.
How do we know that it’s the advertising making kids overweight and not just the television watching? A study of a 32-year ban on fast food advertising to kids in Quebec showed that the ban led to a 13 percent reduction in spending on fast food and 2 billion to 4 billion fewer calories consumed by children. In fact, Quebec has the lowest childhood obesity rate in Canada.
Efforts to regulate marketing of unhealthy foods to American children has been stymied by the influence of fast food lobbying groups.