By Elisa Zied
April 04, 2014
Do Fast-Food Ads Fail When it Comes to Healthy Foods? 37719

For many, it might seem that having fast food outlets offer—and then promote—more nutritious items are steps in a more healthful direction. As I covered in a recent Scoop on Food post, fast-food chains are increasingly (albeit sparingly) offering more healthful options. And McDonald's recently agreed to promote and market water, milk, and juice instead of soda as the beverage in Happy Meals and to include fun messages about nutrition or well-being in all its advertising aimed at children. Despite these initiatives, there's evidence that fast food giants are falling short when it comes to advertisements for healthy meals aimed at children.

In a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics, Dartmouth researchers sought to determine how children depicted images of healthy foods in television advertisements for kids' meals by McDonald's and Burger King restaurants. Ninety-nine kids between the ages of 3 and 7 were shown in sequence two still images of the milk and apple slices and were asked, "What do you see in this picture?"

Researchers found that only 52% and 70% of the children (mostly older children) correctly identified milk from the McDonald's and Burger King images, respectively. Eighty percent of children correctly identified apples from the McDonald's image while only 10% correctly identified apples from the Burger King image. Although French fries weren't shown in either image, 80% of the children thought they saw French fries in the Burger King ad, while only 4% thought they saw French fries in the McDonald's ad. The researchers concluded that of the 4 healthy food images shown to the children, only the depiction of apples by McDonald's was communicated adequately. Younger kids had a harder time identifying milk and Burger King's depiction of apple slices misled the children, although no federal or regulatory actions were taken to correct this.

According to "Fast Food FACTS 2013," a report by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, while most restaurants offer healthier sides and beverages in their kids' meals, they still have a long way to go to promote only healthier fast-food options to kids. The report encouraged fast food restaurants to stop marketing directly to children and teens to encourage consumption of unhealthy fast food. It also recommended that fast food companies limit advertising on children's TV networks and third party kids' websites to healthy kids' meals only.

When asked if he supports marketing of healthy foods to children, James D. Sargent, co-author of the JAMA Pediatrics study, said, "Personally and professionally, as a pediatrician, I am against any marketing to children under the age of 12 years. Many children in that age range are unable to even grasp the concept that marketing is someone trying to sell them something. It is only at about age 12 that children are developmentally capable of understanding that companies pay marketing firms to design ads aimed at persuading them to buy a product, a message that they should view with a certain amount of skepticism. Prior to that age, any message aimed at selling products seems unethical to me."

Although Sargent doubts that limits on food marketing aimed at children will be established in the near future, he believes that companies that decide to market to young children should be held to very high communications standards. At the very least, Sargent says they should "design and test their messages to ensure that they mainly communicate information about the product (not the premium) and that most children are receiving that message." He adds, "If Burger King and McDonald's agree to promote messages about healthy food, we should be able to show that children come away from the advertisements saying they saw healthy food."

Some think children should not be targets when it comes to food marketing, period. In their post, The Dark Side of Marketing Healthy Foods to Children, Susan Linn, Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and Michele Simon, a public health attorney, argue against marketing food—healthy or not—to children to best protect them. They say, "By begging and pleading with the food industry to improve how it markets to children, instead of working to end food marketing to children entirely, we are continuing to endorse a failed system in which industry gets to set the rules, break them whenever it pleases, and then take credit for doing the right thing."

What's your opinion?

Image of McDonalds Drive-Thru via shutterstock.