Think back to your first experience with fast food. No doubt, you were somewhat intrigued by the prospect of going out to eat rather than having your mom's "famous" macaroni salad for the third night in a row. And the grease and fat nestled in the burger and fries were certainly pleasing to your still-forming taste buds. But that was all secondary to the big score of the night out: Your meal came with a free toy!
At this point, it's understood by all involved that fast food companies do their best to try to lure kids into wanting to buy their food. (Or, more accurately, into luring kids to pester mom and dad to take them to buy their food.) But it wasn't until a recent study was released that showed just how insidious this ad targeting really is.
The study looked at all advertisements from the top 25 QSRs (that's "quick service restaurants" to translate the BusinessSpeak), separating the ads that were for the eyes of children from those intended for adults. Then, they focused on what made these two kinds of ads different from one another. Some of their findings:
- 99% of all ads aimed at kids came from McDonald's or Burger King.
- 80% of the kids ads aired on either Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney XD or Nicktoons.
- 70% of kids ads focused on a toy giveaway of some sort.
- Over 50% mentioned a major movie. (Only 14% of "grown-up" ads did so.)
- Over 40% showed the restaurant from the outside, "giving kids a visual hook to look out for from the back seat of the car." (Only 12% for adult-intended ads.)
And this is all scary because:
Previous research has shown that advertisements have a strong influence on how much fast food kids eat and that children like food better when it's linked to animated characters.
To get a little behind-the-scenes look at the study and why these are such creepy findings, I called up Dr. James Sargent, the lead researcher on the project.
Your findings aren't necessarily revolutionary. We've always known fast food companies market to children. So what makes this so surprising?
Dr. James Sargent: When you look at their adult ads, it's very clear what they're selling. They're selling food. There's nothing ambiguous about it.
But for the kids ads ... they say this themselves, that when you market to children you should be really careful not to confuse them. Kids have trouble understanding marketing to begin with. So, [the fast food companies] started their own self-regulation guidelines saying that the ads to children, regardless of what is being marketed, should mainly be focused on the product. Not other aspects, tie-ins, premiums, things like that. And most of these ads that get released to children pass the self-regulation process. The people engaged in the self-regulation process look at those ads and say, "Yeah, these are mainly about the food." Our point is that somehow the self-regulation process has gotten mixed up. They're not really seeing the ads for what they are.
Why have the ads focused on showing premiums?
Dr. Sargent: The companies know that the premiums are bringing families into the restaurant to purchase meals. They're not just purchasing kids meals, they're purchasing adult meals too. So the companies don't want to give up something that's working for them from a marketing standpoint. I could understand that. But it's misleading to the children.
What's the solution to this? Do the ads need to be regulated from the outside?
Dr. Sargent: There just needs to be more attention paid to the fact that the ads are misleading. It has to become enough of a public issue that the company starts to see it's not in their best interest to market to children by emphasizing food premiums and tie-ins.
Was it shocking that these ads were so explicit? Or did it just reconfirm what you thought going in?
Dr. Sargent: There was nothing shocking about it, because you see these ads on TV. But, I study movies as well, and I give talks to parents about smoking and drinking in movies and how that could affect what your kids do. After seeing those talks, parents come up to me a week or two later and sometimes say, "I never saw smoking in movies before, but after your talk that's all I can see." And I say, well, I did my job then, because now you're thinking about that. That's what it was. There was nothing shocking about it, but it caused us to step back and look at them through the lens of how they were also creating their adult ads. And that's where it really became clear to us that the ads were unfair to kids.
You can't advertise smoking on Nickelodeon, so how is this allowed?
Dr. Sargent: It's true, you don't see smoking on kids programs. And that's because the tobacco companies voluntarily gave up that right. Because there was this Fairness in Advertising Act that required there be an anti-smoking commercial for every smoking commercial that aired on TV, and they saw that was really hurting them.
Is that a template that should be looked at to fix this problem?
Dr. Sargent: That's certainly a possibility. That's well within the First Amendment, to say there should be a public service announcement for every unhealthy ad there is. The trouble with food is there's a wide range of healthfulness to food. It's not like a cigarette. Every food item that we complain about isn't going to kill you if used as directed. So, it's more of a gray area. It's more difficult to come up with [rules]. Which foods do you apply it to?
Especially if the ads aren't showing any foods at all.
Dr. Sargent: Right.
Want recipes and food news emailed directly to you? Sign up for the new Food newsletter here!