In 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
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.