McDonalds, Burger King stray from advertising guidelines for kids

September 4, 2013

Fast food television commercials aimed at children ages 2–11 did not comply with self-imposed guidelines organized through the Better Business Bureau (BBB) during a one-year study period, according to a study published in PLOS ONE.

The researchers 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% of the ads: McDonalds (44,062 ads) and Burger King (37,210 ads.) McDonald’s targeted 40% of its advertisements at young children, compared with 21% 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 Jim Sargent, Co-director Cancer Control Program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center. “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.”

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. Two different programs offer guidelines to keep children’s advertising focused on the food, not toys, and, more specifically, on foods with nutritional value.

Given the percentage of toy premiums and movie tie-ins in the visual and audio elements of the ads, the research team concluded that the companies studied did not follow through with their self-regulatory promises during the study period.