Fast food TV commercials aimed at children 2-11 years old did not comply with self-imposed guidelines organized through the Better Business Bureau (BBB) during a one-year study period, according to Dartmouth researchers who published their findings today with PLOS ONE.
"Fast food chains did not live up to their pledges to use fair and honest advertising to children," said principal investigator Jim Sargent, MD, co-director Cancer Control Program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center. "Instead, the ads focused on toy premiums, movie character tie-ins, and efforts to brand the company, like showing a street view of the restaurant."
Sargent's research team examined TV ads appearing on U.S. cable and network television for the top 25 fast food restaurants from July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010.
Over the one-year period, two global giants placed 99 percent of the ads: McDonalds (44,062 ads) and Burger King (37,210 ads.) McDonald's targeted 40 percent of its advertisements at young children, compared with 21 percent for Burger King. As a result, McDonalds placed more than two-thirds of all ads for children's fast food. Seventy-nine percent of ads appeared on four cable networks—Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney XD, and Nicktoons.
When compared to ads targeting adults, the children's ads featured more cartoon characters, toys, and movie references.
Children's ads also included more visual cues than the adult ads to reinforce a child's ability to recognize a restaurant's corporate logo, symbols, packaging, and even the exterior storefront.
"Branding tactics are widely used in fast food advertising aimed at children," said Sargent. "Advertisers use images of toy premiums, music, and movie characters to associate their product with excitement, energy, and fun. They emphasize recognition of the brand, the packaging and the restaurant, with little emphasis on the food products sold there. This heavy dose of branding serves to help a child recognize the storefront of a fast food chain from the backseat and pester their parents to stop for a meal that features the latest superhero."
Earlier research confirms that food advertisements alter eating choices and behaviors, and associating food with animated characters enhances a child's perceived food taste and preference. Research also shows that kids who see these ads eat more fast food.