Kids’ fast food ads promote toys over burgers, study finds

By Amir Khan

If your kid is clamoring for a Happy Meal, he may be more interested in the toy than the burger, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE. Researchers from the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire found that fast food advertisements aimed at kids promote toys and movie tie-ins more than the food, which could play a role in increasing childhood obesity epidemic.

Nearly 70 percent of fast food advertisements aimed at kids promoted giveaways or a movie tie-in, according to the study, compared to only 1 percent of advertisements targeting adults. Associating fast food with cartoon characters is linked to an increased consumption of fast food, according to the researchers, who said that there needs to be strict regulations on child-targeted advertising.

“Given health concerns about obesity and its relation to fast food consumption, enhanced oversight of fast-food marketing to children at the local, state, and federal level is needed to align advertising to children with health promotion efforts and existing principles of honest and fair marketing to children,” the researchers, led by James Sargent, M.D., a researcher at the Geisel School of Medicine, wrote in the study.

But the fast food companies weren’t just hiding unhealthy foods, according to the study. The companies even eschewed promoting their healthier options, opting instead to further promote their toys.

“Although some of the foods presented in children’s meals could be characterized as

‘healthy,’ little emphasis was placed on actually showing the food compared with adult advertisements from the same companies,” the researchers wrote in the study. “Toy premiums and tie-ins were presented prominently.”

The advertisements were not sparse either, researchers said.

“Over the one-year period, 44,062 McDonalds and 37,210 Burger King advertisement placements were identified on national television channels,” researchers wrote. “Seventy-nine percent of placements for children’s advertisements occurred on just four children’s television stations–Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney XD, and Nicktoons.”

By tying movies and fast food together, restaurants ensure that kids want to keep coming back for more, said Daniel Ehlke, Ph.D., assistant professor of health policy and management at SUNY Downstate in New York City.

“Pervasive tie-ins with film and other cultural touchstones likely has the effect of what, and how much, children are consuming at the restaurants in question — making the experience more about entertainment, and less about eating,” Dr. Ehlke said. “In the end, however, this seems to make kids actually eat more, as they wish to be a larger part of a shared cultural experience.

One in three children between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese, and 66 percent of them do not get any daily exercise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children spend upwards of seven hours per day starting at a screen and are bombarded with fast-food advertisements, which is contributing to their expanding waistlines, said Rubina Heptulla, M.D., chief of pediatric endocrinology and diabetes at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City.

“If there are children in the household, there tends to be more unhealthy food, because children influence their parents to buy it.”  Dr. Heptulla said. “Many companies use children to drive the sales of their products because they’re an easier target than adults.”

Ultimately, parents should limit the amount of TV their child watches, said Linda Pagani, Ph.D., a researcher from the University of Montreal.

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