Burger with a Side of Toys: How Is Fast Food Being Marketed to Children?

Fast Food

Story at-a-glance -

  • An analysis of fast-food television ads directed at children showed they put far more emphasis on toys, movies and giveaways than adult ads
  • Research shows that food industry self-regulation and pledges to reduce food marketing of unhealthy products to kids have failed to protect children
  • A junk-food diet can set the stage for asthma, eczema, and a variety of allergies, inflammatory conditions, lowered IQ, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases and more
  • The best time to shape your kids' eating habits is while they're still young; be a positive role model by offering your child regular access to whole, unprocessed foods instead of junk food

By Dr. Mercola

Many of you reading this probably remember ‘Joe Camel,’ an animated yet dapper cigarette mascot that appealed to children and adults alike. This was no coincidence, as cigarette makers, under pressure and regulatory red tape to stop marketing to kids, had to employ other, more subtle measures to get kids hooked.

Joe Camel didn’t disappear until the ‘90s, when a study revealed that children easily associated Joe Camel with cigarettes, just as they did Mickey Mouse with Disneyland.1, 2

Today, however, kids face another marketing risk, one that in my and many other expert opinions may be just as dangerous as that from smoking – if not more so. It’s the advertisement of fast food to kids – a practice that is turning new generations into junk-food addicts, at the utter expense of their health.

Food Industry Ads to Kids Emphasize Toys, Movies

In the US, food advertising and marketing is regulated by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which states that such marketing cannot be false, deceptive or unfair.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) has also created the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which is “a voluntary self-regulation program comprising many of the nation's largest food and beverage companies.”3

Members of this Initiative pledge to only feature food options that meet certain criteria in ads directed at kids, while at the same time not emphasizing toys and promotional characters that will obviously heavily influence a child’s perception of the food.

It all sounds good, in theory, but in practice, it’s another story entirely. New research published in PLOS One showed that television advertisements for children’s meals differed significantly from those geared toward adults.4

Researchers analyzed 92 TV ads (primarily from Burger King and McDonald’s) for children’s meals and found that 79 percent of them aired on just four (highly popular) children’s stations: Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney XD and Nicktoons. Further, compared with the adult ads, the kids’ meal ads featured far more:

  • Toy premiums and giveaways
  • Food packaging images
  • Street views of the restaurant
  • Emphasis on giveaways and movie tie-ins

As the researchers concluded, the study showed that the food industry’s supposed self-regulation is nonsense:

“Children’s QSR [quick-service restaurant] advertisements emphasized toy giveaways and movie tie-ins rather than food products. Self-regulatory pledges to focus on actual food products instead of toy premiums were not supported by this analysis.”

A 2011 study similarly revealed that “company pledges to reduce food marketing of unhealthy products have failed to protect children under 12 years for all types of marketing practices promoting such foods.”5, 6

Did You Know That Children’s TV Marketing Has Been Deregulated?

In the wake of rising rates of childhood obesity and other chronic conditions that are undoubtedly linked to poor diets – high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, certain behavioral problems and so on – intentionally trying to hook kids on junk foods might be considered a crime or certainly immoral.

At the very least, it’s clearly on par with what the tobacco industry did for decades, hooking young kids on their addictive, and lethal, products before they were even old enough to know better.

It’s an instance were increased regulatory action might have been beneficial, and in fact was beneficial – before the protections were taken away.

In the late 1970s, the FTC tried to ban all ads aimed at kids below the age of 8. But then Big Business stepped in and convinced Congress to block such attempts. Instead of banning advertising to children, Congress passed “The FTC Improvement Act,” which strips the FTC of the power and authority to regulate marketing to children.

The final blow came in 1984, when the entire industry was deregulated. Before deregulating children’s TV marketing, children’s spending had risen at a modest 4 percent per year.

After deregulation, children’s spending skyrocketed to 35 percent per year, from $4.2 billion a year in 1984 to $40 billion a year today—an 852 percent increase in less than three decades. According to a recent report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), children age 2-11 now see an average of more than 10 television food ads per day.7 Nearly all (98 percent) of food advertisements viewed by children are for products that are high in fat, sugar or sodium. According to the IOM:

“The marketing of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages is linked to overweight and obesity. A 2006 IOM report provided evidence that television advertising influences the food and beverage preferences, requests, and short-term consumption of children.”

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Advertisers Prey on ‘The Tantrum Factor’

As every parent knows, children are like little sponges, highly impressionable and soaking up everything they see and hear on a daily basis. This is why the food and beverage industry spends about $2 billion a year marketing foods to children.8 The ads are highly effective, as it’s estimated that close to 40 percent of children’s diets come from empty calories in the form of added sugars and unhealthy fats.9

Many parents don’t set out to feed their kids such diets, but kids can be, shall we say, persuasive. For example, the documentary Consuming Kids revealed how “the nag factor” has been studied to the point that marketers can be advised on “what kind of tantrums work better.” Yes, ads are actually designed to increase the number of times your child will keep asking you for the product—i.e. drive you completely batty and/or embarrass you in public until you give in just to make it stop.

With advances in technology, the avenues for marketing have grown exponentially over the past 30 years. It is no longer restricted to TV ads. Kids are now exposed to clever marketing via brand licensing, product placement, schools, stealth marketing, viral marketing, DVDs, games, Internet … there are so many ways to reach children today that there’s a brand in front of your child’s face nearly every moment of every day.

Yes, Your Child’s Health Is Really at Stake

Nutrients from quality foods are critical in helping your child reach his or her fullest potential and this is why providing your child with healthful foods is one of the most important jobs you have as a parent. This means not only shielding them from junk-food marketing as much as possible but also teaching them about healthy foods and providing them with numerous opportunities to try them. Doing this has the potential to significantly alter your child’s health, on multiple levels.

For instance, one study from British researchers revealed that kids who ate a predominantly processed food diet at age 3 had lower IQ scores at age 8.5.10 For each measured increase in processed foods, participants had a 1.67-point decrease in IQ. Along with the potential for lowered IQ, a junk-food diet can also set the stage for asthma, eczema, and a variety of allergies, inflammatory conditions and autoimmune diseases.

In fact, most of the leading diseases plaguing the US are diet-related, including heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer. Nutritional deficiencies in your child's first years of life can even lead to deficits in brain function that put them at risk of behavioral problems -- from hyperactivity to aggression -- that can last into the teenage years and beyond. This is why the importance of proper nutrition simply cannot be overstated.

Take Control Back from the Food Marketers

There is no doubt that junk-food marketing to kids is predatory. This is why one of the best defenses is to be aware that it’s happening. To combat the influence of pernicious marketing of all kinds, seek to limit the amount of time your child spends watching TV and surfing the Web. Unfortunately, marketing is everywhere, and you probably cannot isolate your child from all of it all of the time.

So, one of the best steps you can take is to teach your child about healthy foods at home. You and your family will want to vote with your pocketbook and avoid as much processed food as possible and use unprocessed raw, organic and/or locally grown foods instead.

The sooner you start, the better, as the reality is, the best time to shape your kids' eating habits is while they're still young. This means starting from birth with breast milk and then transitioning to solid foods that have valuable nutrients, like egg yolk, avocado, raw, organic grass-fed yogurt and sweet potatoes. (You can easily cross any form of grain-based infant cereal off of this list.)

From there, ideally you will feed your child healthy foods that your family is also eating -- grass-fed meats, organic veggies, vegetable juice, raw dairy and nuts, and so on, chopped very small or pureed for infants. These are the foods your child will thrive on, and it's important they learn what real, healthy food is right from the get-go. This way, when they become tweens and teenagers, they may eat junk food here and there at a friend's house, but they will return to real food as the foundation of their diet -- and that habit will continue on with them for a lifetime.

Remember, a little bit of hunger goes a long way with kids. Your child will eat healthy foods, provided they aren’t filled up on soda, cookies and French fries first. And don’t give up… it can take up to 15 ‘exposures’ before your child accepts a new healthy food, so persistence, and being creative with a wide variety of foods, is key.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or don’t know where to start, my free nutrition plan offers a step-by-step guide to feed your family right, and I encourage you to read through it now. You need to first educate yourself about proper nutrition and the dangers of junk food and processed foods in order to change the food culture of your entire family.