Despite 2006 "Pledge," Fast Food Companies Target Kids More Than Ever

Fast foodIn response to growing pressure about promoting unhealthy food to kids and contributing to the obesity epidemic, the fast food industry did what every industry that produces a harmful product does: it pledged to voluntarily end the harmful practices that started drawing scrutiny to the industry. Accordingly, in 2006 the Council of Better Business Bureaus launched its Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a voluntary code of conduct under which fast food purveyors pledged to promote healthier food choices in their advertising, and to use messages encouraging good nutrition in ads aimed at kids.

As with other voluntary corporate codes, the CFBAI has proven more effective at staving off regulation of the fast food industry than protecting kids from predatory advertising and marketing practices. Since signing onto the Initiative, the fast food industry has found many ways to evade its purported intent and promote their unhealthy foods to kids more than ever.

On November 8, 2010 Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity released a study that shows fast food companies have ramped up advertising aimed at kids in recent years, and often employ tricky, point-of-sale marketing practices that undermine good nutrition for kids. Researchers looked at the marketing practices of 12 national fast food chains and nutritional data, like sugar, saturated fat and total calories, for over 3,000 children's meal combos and 2,781 total menu items. Out of 3,039 possible meal combinations, only 12 met the nutritional standards set by the Institute of Medicine for preschoolers, and only 15 met the criteria for older children.

Targeting Kids More Than Ever

Children as young as two years old are seeing more fast food ads than ever before. Researchers found that in 2009, preschoolers saw 56 percent more ads for Subway, 21 percent more ads for McDonalds and 9 percent more ads for Burger King than they did in 2007. Older kids saw even more fast food ads, and African-American youth were exposed to at least 50 percent more fast food ads than white youth. Fast food companies have also moved beyond television ads in their advertising practices, and now use social media to reach kids. For example, McDonalds has 13 Web sites that get 365,000 unique child visitors between the ages of 2 and 11, and 294,000 unique visits from teens ages 12 to 18 every month. McDonalds starts targeting kids as young as age two with websites like Ronald.com. McDonalds and Burger King have even created sophisticated "advergames" and online "virtual worlds" that engage children, like HappyMeal.com, McWorld.com and ClubBK.com.

Youth Marketing is Effective

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Fast food ads work well at getting kids into the restaurants. According to online surveys, 40 percent of kids between the ages of 2 and 11 beg their parents to take them to McDonalds at least once a week. 84 percent of parents report that they give in to their kids' request at least once a week. While some argue that it is the parent's job to refuse kids' pleas for fast food, researchers concluded that it is a poor practice to promote unhealthy products directly to children, and constantly put parents in the position of having to say "no" to their kids. Ideally, restaurants would support parental efforts to encourage kids to eat healthy foods, not undermine those efforts by marketing directly to children.

Tricky Point of Sale Practices

Even though companies like Burger King and McDonalds signed onto the BBB's voluntary pledge to limit advertising to kids, these companies engage in tricky point-of-sale practices that undermine healthy nutritional practices. For example, even though most fast food restaurants list at least one healthful side dish and beverage on their menus, and even though their ads show healthful food options as side dishes, most restaurants' default practice is to serve French fries as a side dish 86 percent of the time, and sugary drinks at least 55 percent of the time. And instead of eliminating their biggest side dishes and drinks, companies merely rename them. Burger King's former 42-ounce "King" sized drink is now called a "Large," their former 32-ounce "Large" size is now called a "medium," and their former 21-ounce medium-sized drink is now called "small."

The Yale study confirms, yet again, that when an industry imposes a voluntary code of conduct on itself, it is time for real and effective regulation of harmful corporate behavior. Voluntary codes are smokescreens. They are not designed to protect the public from harmful corporate behavior. They are put in place for one reason only: to protect an embattled industry from effective regulation of known harmful practices.

Comments

Whoever wrote this knows nothing about kids. Kids love that crap. I grew up before there was a McDonald's and I loved that stuff in the fifties when my nannies made it at home, even if they tasted liked rocks with ketchup on them. Seriously, I developed such a bad obesity problem instead of eating them, I read a book called TEENAGE DIET BOOK and decided to starve myself when I was almost 11 years old by taking those rocklike hamburgers with all that fat they were making for me by sticking them in a drawer in my room so I weighed 85 pounds like the book said I should so when my father, who was in Okinawa right before the Vietnam War came back to that house after six months, he almost hit the roof. That is the problem with some girls. Fortunately, it was easy for me to get over that one because Mars bars, Milky Way bars, and potato chips were much tastier than McDonald's hamburgers and had been around since way before I was born even and if you ask me when that was, I will not even consider answering it. I suppose you can't count either, like most lawyers.

When my dad breaks one of those burgers up into tiny little bits we play with them and we have a lot of fun but we have more fun trying to make pictures out of them like in a puzzle and my brother says that ice cream for $4 a cone at the ice cream place are much better for us because it helps the economy more than when we pay $3 for a Happy Meal in addition to being more fun because we get the chocolate ice cream all over our faces and our hair even.. . He is a genius. He calls it marginal something. Also he says that McDonald's franchises are really small businesses, too, like the ice cream parlor near our house. That's the spin, anyway, but I disagree. Franchises are not small businesses. We both are smarter than Mr. Bernanke. That's for sure. No brainer, that one. He, he, he....

There is a national epidemic of unhealthy eating habits. I do not believe that more regulation is the answer. The parents of these children are not informed on the dangers of the food these places offer or even what is healthy to eat anywhere else. Parents who are informed would not subject their kids to the trash these places serve, nor would they allow them to sit in front of a television and be the target of the advertisements. It's a losing battle to fight propaganda with regulation. The advertising / propaganda will not go away even if the regulations were enforced. Children are overly entertained and over stimulated in general. If the parents don't know or don't care, the kids are doomed to fall prey to the conditioning effects of advertising. If you can't reach the parents, the kids are lost until they get older and, if lucky, wisen up to what good nutrition is. There is not a single item at fast food places that I would consider healthy, maybe other than the water or the apple slices or salads (without the sweet dressing). These fast food chains make their money by hijacking kids' desires for toys and fantasy / fun and supplying them with sugary sweets to hook their taste buds, too. Ignorance on part of the public is required for their profits. Most people prefer their bliss, unfortunately for them.