Study reveals ‘major limitations’ to fast-food industry self-regulation of advertising to children

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/happy_lark
Source: Getty/happy_lark

Related tags Food for kids Fast food

Children’s health advocates are calling on fast-food restaurants to further restrict marketing of unhealthy food to children on television, across social media and in their establishments after finding the industry’s annual ad spend increased 9% between 2012 and 2019.

Research ​conducted by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and the University of Connecticut published June 17 found the fast food industry spent $5bn in total advertising in 2019 – an increase of more than $400m – resulting in children seeing an average of 2.1 to 2.3 fast-food TV ads per day in 2019.

A significant portion of marketing in 2019 – $318m – went to Spanish-language TV ads, representing a 33% increase from 2012 and resulting in the number of ads viewed by Hispanic preschoolers and children increasing 2% and 7% from 2012 while the ads viewed by preschoolers and children overall fell.

Likewise, Black preschoolers, children and teens viewed 75% more fast-food TV ads than their white counterparts in 2019, representing a significant increase from the 60% more ads viewed by Black youth in 2012, according to the report.

Most of these ads promoted full-calorie regular menu items or the restaurants more broadly, while just 1% of the ads promoted healthier menu items – many of which were added by fast-food chains under public pressure to help children cut sugar, fat, salt and unnecessary calories, revealed the study, which analyzed 2019 Nielsen data for advertising spending and exposure for 275 fast-food restaurants.

“This new study shows that these purchasing patterns mirror the ads children see, with the vast majority of ads viewed by children promoting less healthy and higher portion items on their regular menu,”​ according to the Rudd Center.

“These findings highlight considerable opportunities for improvement in fast-food advertising to youth,”​ the researchers argue in the study.

‘Major limitations’ to self-regulation

They argue, “industry self-regulation of advertising to children, primarily through the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), requires that participating companies advertise only healthier products on TV programming direct to children under 12 years. However, our findings demonstrate major limitations.”

For example, the researchers note that McDonald’s Happy Meals advertised on children’s TV met CFBAI nutritional standards, but they also promoted visiting their restaurants, where purchases were mostly for nutritionally poor menu items.

In addition, participation in CFBAI is limited with many non-participating restaurants continuing to advertise primarily regular menu items on children’s TV.

Finally, advertising on TV programing not directed at children still reached children with nine out of 10 fast food ads that children saw appearing on other programming that promoted products not geared towards kids, the study found.


Given the impact of advertising for fast-food on children’s dietary choices and health, the researchers argue CFBAI food industry self-regulation standards should be extended to cover children up to the age of 14 years from 12 years at a minimum.

They also urge additional fast-food restaurants to join CFBAI and “discontinue offering unhealthy versions of products that meet CFBAI nutrition standards (and depicted in child-directed ads) inside restaurants.”

The researcher also call on other stakeholders, including media companies and public health advocates and practitioners to take increased responsibility for children’s nutrition.

“Media companies should follow the lead of Disney and set nutrition standards for food advertising they will accept,”​ and public health advocates should educate the public about unhealthy fast-food advertising and support “youth-led countermarketing campaigns to expose marketing practices by the top fast-food advertisers,”​ the study advocates.

Finally, the researchers call on lawmakers to limit fast-food promotion and access by children and teens in neighborhoods near “youth-oriented settings,” eliminate unhealth food and beverage marketing to children as a tax-deductible corporate expense and require improved 

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