Kids Under the Influence

The psychology behind marketing to young consumers

Have Fast Food Restaurants Improved Their Marketing to Kids?

Fast food companies still target kids with marketing for unhealthy products.

Every year, food and beverage companies spend billions to convince kids that it’s cool and fun to consume products that are high in calories, added sugar, saturated fat and sodium—products that contribute to weight gain and long-term health risks like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

The worst offenders: fast food restaurants.

In a recent report by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, Fast Food FACTS 2013, we document the myriad sophisticated ways that the fast food industry targets children and teens. The numbers are enormous. In 2012, the industry spent $4.6 billion on advertising; McDonald’s alone spent almost $1 billion. On average, preschoolers under age 6 saw almost three fast food ads on TV every day, while older children and teens (12-17 years old) saw almost five ads daily.

Fast food companies also frequently advertise to children and teens on the internet, in social media, on mobile devices, in schools, community centers, and just about every other location they frequent. Furthermore, much of this marketing is targeted to black and Latino youth, who suffer disproportionately from obesity and diet-related diseases.

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But aren’t fast food meals getting healthier? Not really. Despite 50% increases in the number of possible kids’ meals combinations (including a main dish, side and drink) and regular menu items offered, the proportion of healthy items on restaurant menus did not improve. In 2013—as in 2010—99% of kids’ meals did not qualify as healthy meals for children and 75% of regular menu items exceeded recommended fat, sugar or sodium limits for teens. 

Recent studies have demonstrated that exposure to fast food marketing is related to consumption of fast food and sugary drinks and restaurant visits. Substantial reductions in unhealthy fast food marketing to children and teens are needed.

The Rudd Center report does note some improvements in fast food marketing targeted to children 6-11 years old, including a 10% reduction in TV ads viewed in 2012 versus 2009. However, there were no comparable improvements in marketing to 12- to 17-year-olds. On the contrary, we found considerable evidence that some restaurants—including Taco Bell, Starbucks, Dairy Queen and McDonald’s—specifically target this age group with marketing for some of their least healthy menu items, including high-calorie high-sugar snacks.  

This marketing may be even more harmful when directed to older children and teens. Unlike younger children, middle  and high school students have the means and independence to consume fast food on their own. And they do—as much or more than any other age group.  On a typical day, 41% of teens eat fast food, consuming 310 more calories than on days they don’t eat fast food. One-quarter of teens’ visits to fast food restaurants are for an afternoon snack. Furthermore, 18% of middle schools and 30% of high schools serve branded fast food weekly, while 19% of high schools serve it every day.

Despite high levels of skepticism about advertising in general, adolescents remain extraordinarily susceptible to the influence of food advertising. Recent neuroimaging research shows that adolescents demonstrate more reward responsivity and attention to food advertisements (including fast food ads) compared to other television advertisements, with similar neural responses to food logos alone.

Recent developments in fast food marketing present concerns for older children and teens in particular. For example, most restaurants have shifted their internet marketing efforts toward Facebook and other social media, placing six billion ads on Facebook in 2012 (19% of their online ads). Starbucks, McDonald’s and Subway rank among the top ten brands on Facebook and Twitter. Due to younger teens’ greater vulnerability to peer influence, targeted use of social media marketing disguised as messages from friends, raises numerous developmental concerns.

Fast food restaurants also have pioneered the use of marketing via mobile media. Ten of the top restaurants offer branded smartphone apps with numerous interactive features. When teenagers sign up, they can order and pay directly from their phone or receive notices about special offers from nearby restaurants. Pizza ordering apps from Pizza Hut and Papa John’s are especially popular with more than 700,000 unique visitors per month. Due to heightened reward sensitivity, adolescents are not biologically equipped to forgo these tempting offers in the short-term for greater rewards in the future (such as good health).

Public attention has produced some improvements in unhealthy fast food marketing targeted to children 11 years and younger over the past three years. However, restaurants appear to have shifted their efforts to a slightly older, but still vulnerable youth audience. Parents and the public health community are beginning to demand improvements in fast food marketing targeted to middle school-age children.

Psychologists can also play an important role by educating parents and policymakers about why older children and younger teens are not immune to the influence of unhealthy food marketing. To learn more about fast food marketing to children and teens, please visit the Rudd Center’s Fast Food FACTS website at fastfoodmarketing.org.

Jennifer L. Harris, Ph.D., M.B.A., is at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

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