Yale study attacks fast food and its marketing


Despite recent promises to cut back on marketing to children, a study from the Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity says that the young are seeing more advertising than ever. Television is said to have received much of the fast food industry’s 2009 marketing budget of $4.2B.

The study said that in 2009, preschool ad exposure was up 21% over 2003 levels, and that it was even worse for older children, who had a 34% increase in exposure.

The study was critical of actual restaurant practices. The number of healthy options was very limited, and in most cases, the healthy sides are not the default side dish in children’s meals. (In other words, kids are much more likely to get fries than apple sticks.)

One problem with the advertising, according to the report, is that it works. For example, 40% of children age 2-11 ask to go to McDonalds at least once a week. According to the study, “The average preschooler sees almost three ads per day for fast food; children ages 6-11 see three-and-a-half ads; and teens ages 12-17 see almost five ads per day.”

On top of the advertising aimed their way, the study noted that children are also influenced by advertising aimed at their parents and other adults.

“Our results show that the fast food industry’s promises to market less unhealthy food to young people are not enough,” said study co-author Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., director and co-founder of the Rudd Center. “If they truly wish to be considered partners in public health, fast food restaurants need to drastically reduce the total amount of marketing that children and teens see for fast food and the iconic brands that sell it.”

RBR-TVBR observation: There was a lot of noise in Washington a few years ago on the topic of marketing unhealthy food to children, involving industry players, regulators and legislators alike. It quieted down considerably but the basic theme – protecting our kids – is a Washington perennial, and it could come back on a moment’s notice.

The recent approach has involved pledges from stakeholders to provide healthy food options for kids (where applicable) and to carefully control the message children are getting and also limit their exposure to advertising.

The day may come where politicians elect to follow the lead of those in other nations who impose restrictions on advertising to children in the absence of effective self-regulation from stakeholders. While we do not expect this issue to make major headway in the soon-to-be-seated 112th Congress, it is absolutely an area where the industry needs to show it can effectively police itself, because this issue will come back.