After much criticism and prodding, Fast food giants McDonald’s and Burger King agreed to depict healthier food options in advertising directed at children. Researchers at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, along with the Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI) at Northeastern University School of Law, found that attempts to honor these pledges by depicting healthier kids’ meals frequently go unnoticed by children ages 3 to 7 years-old. In research published on March 31, 2014 in JAMA Pediatrics, these researchers found that one-half to one-third of children did not identify milk when shown McDonald’s and Burger King children’s advertising images depicting that product. Sliced apples in Burger King’s ads were identified as apples by only 10 percent of young viewers; instead most believed that the ads were depicting french fries.
Children in the study were confused by the images of food. One typical participant said, “And I see some…are those apples slices?”
The researcher replied, “I can’t tell you…you just have to say what you think they are.”
“I think they’re french fries,” the child responded.
“Burger King’s depiction of apple slices as ‘Fresh Apple Fries’ was misleading to children in the target age range,” said principal investigator James Sargent, MD, co-director Cancer Control Research Program at Norris Cotton Cancer Center. “The advertisement would be deceptive by industry standards, yet their self-regulation bodies took no action to address the misleading depiction.”
Mark Gottlieb, Executive Director of PHAI and an author of the study, observed that, “when young children believe they will be getting french fries with their meals because of deceptive or confusing advertising imagery, they may insist that the adult bringing them orders french fries instead of apple slices. Likewise, if advertising leads children to expect a sugary drink rather than milk, they may well end up getting the sugary drink. This has the effect of undermining the self-regulatory pledges that the companies made.”
Study author and PHAI Senior Staff Attorney Cara Wilking said she found it, “troubling that fast food giants would publicly make a self-regulatory pledge, fail to live up to the pledge, and receive no sanction from the relevant self-regulatory body. Such failures suggests that self-regulation is often more about public relations than about fulfilling the role of actual governmental regulation.”
Sargent and his colleagues studied fast food television ads aimed at children from July 2010 through June 2011. In this study researchers extracted “freeze frames” of Kids Meals shown in TV ads that appeared on Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and other children’s cable networks. Of the four healthy food depictions studied, only McDonald’s presentation of apple slices was recognized as an apple product by a large majority of the target audience, regardless of age. Researchers found that the other three presentations represented poor communication.
This study follows an earlier investigation conducted by Sargent and his colleagues, which found that McDonald’s and Burger King children’s advertising emphasized giveaways like toys or box office movie tie-ins to develop children’s brand awareness for fast food chains, despite self-imposed guidelines that discourage the practice.
While the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission play important regulatory roles in food labeling and marketing, the Better Business Bureau operates a self-regulatory system for children’s advertising. Two different programs offer guidelines to keep children’s advertising focused on the food, not toys, and, more specifically, on foods with nutritional value.
“The fast food industry spends somewhere between $100 to 200 million dollars a year on advertising to children, ads that aim to develop brand awareness and preferences in children who can’t even read or write, much less think critically about what is being presented.” said Sargent.
Bernhardt AM, Wilking C, Gottlieb M, Emond J, Sargent JD. Children’s Reaction to Depictions of Healthy Foods in Fast-Food Television Advertisements. JAMA Pediatr.2014;():. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.140.
This study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Eating Research program.