Although one in three American children are overweight or obese, fast food companies continue to spend billions advertising mostly unhealthy foods to children and teens, according to a new study by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.
The study, entitled Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score (FACTS), evaluated fast food ads across television, social media and restaurant websites. The researchers found that just six fast food companies are responsible for over 70 percent of all television ads viewed by children and teens. Although the study praised companies for increasing the number of healthier options they offer compared to 2010 when the Rudd Center published the last FACTS report, it noted that just three percent of all fast food meals aimed at children meet the National Restaurant Association’s “Kids LiveWell” nutrition standards.
“Unless they change that environment inside the fast food restaurant, there really should not be any advertising encouraging children and teens to go there,” said Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center and lead researcher for FACTS.
Fast food restaurants spent $4.6 billion on advertising in 2012 — eight percent more than in 2009. The 2013 FACTS study found that much of this increase has been driven by a push to expand digital media advertising. Fast food companies are targeting children with special websites, social media promotions and ads on third-party websites, Harris said.
Social media advertising has proved particularly effective at engaging children because the ads are interactive and spread through networking platforms, Kendrin Sonnevile, director of nutrition training at the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, said in an email to the News.
But fast food companies and consumer choice advocates say that fast food ads are not the problem. Justin Wilson, senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, said that fast food restaurants have taken steps to offer numerous healthy options and cannot be held responsible if customers purchase hamburgers instead of salads. Wilson added that parents can limit children’s exposure to advertising or encourage them to order healthy food.
“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t force him to drink,” he said.
Despite some improvements on fast food menus and slight declines in children’s exposure to television ads, children are still vulnerable to advertising that promotes unhealthy food, Harris said. She added that advertisements showing healthy items can lead to the impression among parents that kids’ meals are healthier than they actually are.
Harris said fast food companies must expand healthy options to help meals meet nutritional standards.
“Just because the meal had apples and milk doesn’t make the chicken nuggets or cheeseburger any healthier,” she said.
The report recommends fast food companies improve the overall nutritional quality of meal combinations and stop targeting children with ads that encourage them to eat fast food frequently. Harris said that children are uniquely vulnerable to advertising because they lack the ability to consider the long-term consequences of eating unhealthy foods.
Wilson said he was skeptical that there is a link between fast food advertising and childhood obesity rates.
“We have seen that food marketing is capable of at least changing children’s understanding of food,” Wilson said. “But we have never seen any link between actual increases in obesity rates and the amount of marketing children see.”
After the 2010 FACTS report came out, fast food companies ended some of their most “egregious” advertising strategies, such as setting up advertising websites specifically for children, Harris said. Going forward, Harris said she hopes the new FACTS report spurs further changes, such as an end to the advertising of full-size portions from the regular menu on kids’ television shows.
On average, preschoolers viewed 2.8 fast food ads per day in 2012, children ages 6 to 11 saw 3.2, and teenagers saw 4.8.