McDonald’s defends its ads targeting kids as study concludes self-regulation is not working

By Elaine WATSON

- Last updated on GMT

Contrary to industry-backed guidance, ads from fast-food giants aimed at kids focus on toys and movie tie ins - not food, claims a new study
Contrary to industry-backed guidance, ads from fast-food giants aimed at kids focus on toys and movie tie ins - not food, claims a new study

Related tags: Fast food, Nutrition

McDonald’s has challenged the conclusions of a new study alleging that self-regulation is not working when it comes to advertising to kids.

The authors of the study - published in PLOS One​ - examined TV ads from the top US QSR chains airing on national TV from July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010 to determine whether firms were adhering to industry-backed CARU (Children’s Advertising Review Unit) guidelines.

They found that contrary to these guidelines - which require a focus on food, not toys and movies in QSR ads targeting kids - the vast majority of ads aimed at kids emphasized toy giveaways and movie tie-ins rather than food products.

While the few product-oriented ads aimed at children did promote healthier options, the main focus of the ads was wooing kids with toys and movie tie-ins to visit the restaurants - where they might buy less healthy options, claimed the authors.

CSPI: Fast food chains should apply standards to the meals they sell with toys

margo-wootan-CSPI
Margo Wootan, CSPI: Just as fast-food restaurants apply nutrition standards to the meals they advertise, they also should apply standards to the meals they sell with toys

Margo G. Wootan, D.Sc. director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said: “Once a family arrives at the restaurant, odds are that a child's meal will be too high in calories, fats, and salt. And at the top chain restaurants, 97% of children's meals are of poor nutritional value.

“Just as fast-food restaurants apply nutrition standards to the meals they advertise, they also should apply standards to the meals they sell with toys.”

McDonald’s: The study is based on data that is three years old

But McDonald’s said the data was out of date, adding: "The study in question is based on data that is three years old and does not accurately reflect our current advertising or our commitment to promoting balanced choices, nutrition and active lifestyles in 100% of our marketing communications to children. 

“Both CFBAI and CARU ​[industry-backed self-regulatory groups] have robust monitoring to ensure compliance, and McDonald's is fully committed to these important programs.”

Additionally, the study “compares adult TV ads to children’s TV ads and finds that there is more food focus in adult ads”, ​said the fast-food giant.

“From that, it concludes we did not comply with our commitments.​ [But] these two audiences are vastly different and the comparison is not an adequate measure of our compliance with the self-regulatory commitments.”

Study: QSR ads emphasize toy giveaways and movie tie-ins, not food products

Burger-King-toys

In the period covered by the study - which was led by Amy M. Bernhardt from the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, Lebanon, NH - 44,062 McDonald’s and 37,210 Burger King ad placements were identified on national TV channels.

McDonald’s placed a stronger emphasis on the child market, with 40% of its placements aimed at young children compared with 21% for Burger King, said the authors. “Thus, during the study period, over two-thirds of all placements for children’s fast food ads were attributable to McDonald’s.

“Whereas adult TV ads from these QSR companies emphasized the taste, portion size and price of food products, children’s ads emphasized toy premiums and movie tie-ins, brands and logos.

“Children’s advertisements also emphasized the street view of the restaurant, which may help children to recognize it as they drive by with their parents.”

They concluded: “Self-regulatory pledges to focus on actual food products instead of toy premiums were not supported by this analysis…

If the same problems continue to be found in more contemporary advertisements despite continued self-regulation, further governmental action aimed at children’s food advertising may be warranted.”

NPD Group: Visits to fast food chains are up 1% YoY compared to flat traffic growth for the total restaurant industry

According to market researcher NPD Group, Fast food restaurants, which represent 78% of total foodservice industry traffic, are expected to fare better than other restaurant segments over the next decade.  

"For the year ending June 2013, visits to fast food restaurants were up 1% over same period last year compared to flat traffic growth for the total industry​", said the firm.

"Fast food spending was up 3% and spending for total restaurants was up 2%."

Source​: PLoS ONE 8(8): e72479. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0072479

‘How Television Fast Food Marketing Aimed at Children Compares with Adult Advertisements’

Authors​: Amy M. Bernhardt, Cara Wilking, Anna M. Adachi-Mejia, Elaina Bergamini, Jill Marijnissen, James D. Sargent

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