Study sheds light on fast-food marketing efforts

by Jeff Gelski
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NEW HAVEN, CONN. — Young children are being exposed to more fast-food advertisements than ever before, according to a new study from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. In addition, the study found many restaurants are failing to offer healthier children’s meal options as the default. The study examined marketing efforts of 12 of the nation’s largest fast-food chains and looked at calories, fat, sugar and sodium in more than 3,000 children’s meal combinations and 2,781 menu items.

The study found preschoolers saw 21% more advertisements for McDonald’s, 9% more for Burger King and 56% more for Subway during 2009 compared with 2007, while children ages 6 to 11 saw 26% more advertisements for McDonald’s, 10% more for Burger King and 59% more for Subway. Along with the escalating ad counts, researchers in the study said fast-food advertising is focusing on building brand loyalty rather than promoting specific food items.

“Despite pledges to improve their marketing practices, fast-food companies seem to be stepping up their efforts to target kids,” said lead researcher Jennifer L. Harris, Ph.D., M.B.A., director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center. “Today, preschoolers see 21% more fast-food ads on TV than they saw in 2003, and somewhat older children see 34% more.”

The researchers said they attributed the uptick in marketing to the growing number of forms of marketing that are relatively inexpensive and more difficult to quantify, including main restaurant web sites, child-targeted web sites and special interest web sites. Other growing forms of marketing included Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
In addition to what researchers deemed as stepped-up marketing to children, fast-food restaurants are not taking the necessary steps to steer people toward healthier selections.

According to the study, only 12 of a possible 3,039 possible children’s meal combinations met the researchers’ nutrition criteria for preschoolers, and only 15 met nutrition criteria for older children.

Researchers in the study said fast-food restaurants must do more to push their lower calorie and more nutritious menu items inside the restaurants when young people and parents make their final purchase decision.

“All of those responsible must take action to ensure that young people visit fast-food restaurants less often and, when they do visit, that they consume less of the primarily calorie-dense nutrient-poor foods typically purchased,” the researchers said. “The restaurant industry can rightly claim that parents should make decisions about what to feed their children and that teens must learn how to make healthy choices. But it is disingenuous for the industry to imply that it is only responsible for making more healthful food options available for consumers who are interested in them.”

The full report, which was supported by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Rudd Foundation, may be found at www.fastfoodmarketing.org.

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