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Fast Food: Some of My Best Customers Are Kids

Fast Food: Some of My Best Customers Are Kids

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Image by happymealy via Flickr

Wouldn’t it be great, a recent New York Times Magazine piece by Michael Moss mused, if broccoli were to receive the same type of lavishly funded, devilishly smart marketing that less healthy food receives?

But that intriguing thought experiment -- Big Broccoli, anyone? -- remains just that for now, as fast food war-chests continue to dwarf the fruit-and-veg lobby. According to 2012 figures, fast food restaurants spent $4.6 billion on advertising their goods, up 8% from 2009. Compare that to the less than $370 million for the “healthy food” categories of fruit, vegetables, bottled water and milk. Follow the money, as Moss showed earlier this year, and you arrive at the pillars of salt, sugar and fat.

As any parent can testify, those marketing billions fund campaigns that often target kids and teens. Over time, the ad exposure adds up. A new report from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity finds that in 2012, preschoolers viewed an average of 2.8 fast food TV ads a day, while older children averaged 3.2 TV ads a day and teens 4.8 ads a day.

Causation is famously tricky, but it’s unlikely corporations would keep spending billions unless the ads were getting results: On any given day, an estimated 33% of children and 41% of teens are eating fast food. Such diets can only add to weight-related health woes: More than a third of children and teens were overweight or obese as of 2010, according to the CDC.

The Rudd Center report, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, provides an updated look at how the industry’s numbers have changed since the center’s last analysis in 2010.

“Most fast food restaurants stepped up advertising to children and teens,” said Jennifer Harris, the report’s lead author, in a statement. “Most advertising promotes unhealthy regular menu items and often takes unfair advantage of young people’s vulnerability to marketing, making it even tougher for parents to raise healthy children.”

As for kids’ meals, the serving sizes may be smaller than they used to be but the nutrition still leaves much to be desired. Even with healthy side options and McDonald’s move to include a half-portion of apples with a half-portion of fries, the report found that less than 1% of all kids’ meal combinations “met recommended nutrition standards.” That’s true even as the number of kids’ meal combinations has increased by more than 50 percent, the report adds.

The report wasn’t all bad news for health advocates, however. One bright spot noted by the report: TV advertising viewed by kids in the 6 to 11 age range dipped by 10 percent. Two major chains, Burger King and McDonald’s, actually reduced their TV ads directed at kids, by 50% and 13%, respectively. They also took down their child-targeted websites.

But while older children may be viewing slightly fewer TV ads, the report also says that 60% of fast food restaurants actually stepped up their TV advertising to older children – Domino Pizza’s spending, for instance, went up by 44%. And according to the report, McDonald’s is still the only major fast food restaurant to advertise more to kids than teens or adults on TV.

Fast food companies are also increasingly exploiting the new advertising mediums offered by social media and “advergames,” free game apps for kids that further extend a brand’s screen time.

Among social media, Facebook now represents a towering ad presence: Nearly a fifth of all fast food display advertising appeared on Facebook, the report says, for a total of six billion fast food ads on the social media network in 2012. Half of Wendy’s and Dunkin’ Donuts’ online ads were on Facebook.

The ubiquity of fast food ads makes it hard for parents to shield their kids from such marketing, but organizations such as KidsHealth advise parents to limit their kids’ TV and computer time.

When you do, you'll avoid mindless snacking and encourage activity. Research has shown that kids who cut down on TV-watching also reduced their percentage of body fat. When TV and computer time are limited, they'll find more active things to do. And limiting “screen time” means you'll have more time to be active together.

The health benefits are double: Kids not perched before a screen are more likely to do something active and less likely to imbibe a steady stream of appetite-whetting junk food ads.

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