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A new report examines fast-food marketing practices to children and highlights stark racial and ethnic disparities. NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images
  • The latest research shows the growing disparity between ads aimed at marginalized groups versus their white peers.
  • Fast-food restaurants, such as McDonald’s, Domino’s, and Taco Bell, spent over $1.5 billion on TV ads in 2019 to target Black and Hispanic kids.
  • In 2019, Black youth viewed 75% more fast-food ads than their white peers, while no healthy items were promoted on Spanish-language TV.
  • Almost all fast-food ads promoted full-calorie, adult-sized, regular menu items (not kids’ meals) over their more nutritious alternatives.
  • Despite targeting the youth, less than 10% of these ads were broadcast on kids’ TV.

Over one-third of children and adolescents in the United States eat fast food on any given day, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. What’s more, the percentage of calories children get from fast food — which generally consists of foods that include burgers, fries, and pizza — has also increased in the last few years, with 1 in 5 kids in the U.S. now classed as having obesity.

One factor that contributes to this growth is marketing.

Mounting research has found a strong link between rates of childhood obesity and increases in advertising for less nutritious foods, such as fast food.

The most recent Fast Food FACTS report published by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut is the latest to add to the literature.

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The 2021 report analyzed data on how 274 fast-food restaurants spent their advertising budgets and how much children were exposed to these ad campaigns. The data also looked further into the 27 top fast-food advertisers and how they targeted young white, Hispanic, and Black consumers under the age of 18 years.

According to Nielsen 2019 data, which the study was based on, ad spending for fast food has increased by $400 million since 2012, reaching $5 billion in 2019. These fast-food ad campaigns were also specifically catered to the youth, and Black and Hispanic groups were disproportionately targeted.

On an annual basis, the research found the following statistics when ads were distributed into age groups:

  • 830 TV ads per year targeted preschoolers aged 2–5 years
  • 787 ads were aimed at children aged 6–11 years
  • 775 ads were directed to teens 12- to 17-year-olds

On average, children and teens saw more than two ads per day promoting fast foods or businesses on TV.

The research also found that only 10% of these ads were broadcast on children’s programming, and less than 20% promoted kids’ meals.

Only one restaurant (McDonald’s) allocated more than 1% of its spending on ads to promote more nutritious kids’ meals.

Moreover, programming that targeted Black and Hispanic youth promoted low cost, large-portion, “value” meal deals and bundles.

Among all the findings, according to Dr. Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center and one of the study co-authors, the most surprising was that only 1% of fast-food advertising promoted restaurants’ more nutritious menu items.

“That means that restaurants make a big deal about improving the nutritional quality of menu items when they talk about their corporate responsibility initiatives, but they still almost exclusively continue to advertise their unhealthy stuff to consumers,” she told Medical News Today.

Among food and beverage marketing, 40% of the ads for 2- to 17-year-olds promoted fast food. Disparities in ads targeting various ethnicities or races also increased over the years.

Hispanic youth

Fast-food ad spending on Spanish-language TV amounted to $318 million in 2019. This shows an increase of 33% since 2012.

McDonald’s, Subway, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Domino’s, Popeyes, Burger King, and Little Caesars were the top Hispanic-targeted brands in 2019.

The only kids’ meal advertised on Spanish-language TV in 2019 was McDonald’s Happy Meals, but they were primarily aimed at Hispanic parents and not children.

No healthy items were promoted on Spanish-language TV in 2019.

Among Hispanic youth, preschoolers viewed more fast-food ads than older groups on Spanish-language TV, which was about an ad a day at 342.3 ads a year.

Hispanic children watched 251.3 fast-food ads a year, while teens saw 210.4 ads.

Black youth

Meanwhile, 23 fast-food restaurants spent $99 million to advertise on Black-targeted TV in 2019.

Fast food (pizza, burgers, fried chicken, and similar foods), candy, sugary drinks, and unhealthy snacks comprised 86% of food ad spending on TV programming that targeted Black groups.

Taco Bell, Domino’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s, McDonald’s, and KFC were among the top Black-targeted brands.

Specifically, Black teens saw 1.9–2.5 times as many ads for these same restaurants compared with white teens.

Black preschoolers and Black children viewed an average of three ads per day, or approximately 1,000 fast-food ads on an annual basis in 2019. Black teens saw slightly fewer at 986.9 ads during the same period.

Black youth, on the whole, saw 755 more ads than their white counterparts in 2019, recording a 60% increase from figures in 2012.

Calling this disparity “deplorable,” Fatima Cody Stanford, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Section on Obesity Communications, said this was one of the many barriers to improve health in the Black community.

“It seems as though all forces are against our community to [compromise] our health and health-related quality of life.”

This disproportionate exposure that Black children and teens received could partly indicate that fast-food businesses placed their ads during TV programming that was viewed more by Black youth than white youth, the study highlighted.

The study’s authors also noted that Black youth were found to watch more television than their white counterparts. For Black preschoolers, this was on average 32% more hours of TV, for Black children 61% more, and for Black teens 58% more, respectively.

These results are consistent with a 2011 report from Northwestern University, IL, which states that children from marginalized groups spend 1–2 additional hours watching TV when compared with their white peers. An association has also been made between socioeconomic status and the time children spend watching TV.

“The use of screen time as an entertainer means that parents do not need to dedicate monetary resources that may not be available,” notes a 2011 study published in the Journal of Family Issues.

Screen time, which could be described as the amount of time allocated to using an electronic device with a screen, such as a TV, smartphone, computer, or video game console, has rapidly increased over the last few years and especially during COVID-19 lockdowns.

Screen time has also been identified as a risk factor for childhood obesity, as suggested by data from the most recent NHANES study in 2009–2012. The research found that children aged 2–4 years who watched more than 2 hours of TV per day were more likely to have obesity.

Correspondingly, living near a fast-food restaurant has been linked to higher obesity rates. Children who live at least half a block away from such eateries are between 2.5 and 4.4% less likely to have obesity than those who live closer.

This proves problematic as Black and Hispanic neighborhoods have been found to house more fast-food restaurants than white neighborhoods, as shown in a 2012 study.

Stanford said:

“[The Rudd Center study] reinforces what we have known for some time. The fast-food industry preys on vulnerable [marginalized] youth. This is particularly concerning due to the disproportionate impact of obesity on communities of color here in the U.S.”

When ads and children mix

Research has shown that children in the preoperational stage — between the ages of 2 and 7 years and before they can understand concrete logic — can be unfairly manipulated with messages from ads.

The American Psychological Association (APA) says that children under the age of 6 years cannot differentiate TV program content from TV advertisements, while those younger than 8 years cannot grasp the persuasive intent that comes with ads.

This makes such targeted campaigns exploitative when young children are involved.

“All advertising to young children exploits their unique vulnerabilities since they do not have the cognitive abilities to defend against persuasive attempts,” said Harris, pointing out that currently, McDonald’s spends the most on advertising to young children.

“That should stop,” she added.

Children have also been found to recall content easily from the ads they watch. Studies in the 70s have shown a single ad or one-time exposure to be enough to get them to prefer a certain brand.

A 2016 World Health Organization (WHO) report also suggested that one-off or continuous exposure to food marketing may influence children’s thoughts and behaviors. This rang especially true for their preferences and consumption habits of unhealthy foods.

This influence can manifest as repetitive requests by children to parents, and therefore influence family purchasing decisions.

The fast-food ads analyzed between 2012 and 2019 were also found to be directing children to mobile apps and websites, calling on them to place digital orders. This creates a new problem area: online marketing to children.

Monitoring TV advertising may not be enough if other digital, nontraditional media platforms continue their unhealthy marketing practices to children.

Harris acknowledged that it is much harder to protect older children and adolescents when subjected to such marketing on multiple platforms.

“[It’s] everywhere — in the media, online, including on their mobile devices, all around their neighborhoods, especially low income communities of color.”

“However, fast-food companies listen to consumers, and if consumers demand that companies change, they will.”

In short, no.

Fast-food businesses have tried to voluntarily introduce healthier alternatives, sides, and drinks on their menus and have participated in marketing self-regulation programs to promote such choices. So far, only McDonald’s and Burger King have taken part in these initiatives.

However, these have had little to no effect in convincing children to choose more nutritious options over regular, high calorie foods, as they have been found to emphasize the premiums that come with the meals, not the food itself.

This was reflected in a 2015 study published in the journal Plos One that sought to reveal what children recalled from fast-food advertising on TV.

The children rarely recalled the more nutritious items, such as apples and milk, from the kids’ ads and were just as likely to remember the premiums, such as toys. However, when they were shown adult ads in the same category, they noticed the food more.

The researchers concluded that this difference was because food was underemphasized in children’s ads.

This adds to research evidencing that children’s purchasing patterns are only mirroring what they see in ads.

Although this study has limitations, as it did not measure longer-term recalls, it raises concerns. There seems to be a need to evaluate all commercial advertising aimed at children.

“Unfortunately, fast-food advertising looks a lot like it did 8 years ago. Most major restaurants are spending more than ever on advertising, and that advertising is even more targeted to Black and Hispanic youth today,” said Harris.

The study’s authors recommend the following changes:

  • Such harmful marketing targeting marginalized groups should be limited.
  • Fast-food restaurants must do more to end disproportionately high advertising for less nutritious products — such as fast food — aimed at Black and Hispanic youth.
  • The marketing and fast-food industries must voluntarily self-regulate to restrict such ads to those aged 14 years or older at the minimum.
  • Ads that promote regular meals, or specifically, not kids meals, should be discontinued on children’s TV.
  • On a governmental level — to include federal, state, and local authorities — nutrition standards should be introduced for kids’ meals.
  • Tax deductions should be denied to companies and businesses that market less healthy foods and drinks to children.
  • TV advertising should be restricted during programming for children below the age of 9 years.

Stanford said, “Parents, professionals, advertisers, and the government need to take an active look at how their activities and practices may have a dramatic impact on the populations that are most at risk for chronic diseases such as obesity.”

For widespread social change, she also underscored the importance of parents and professionals using their voices by speaking up on social media and advocating for optimal nutrition both to their local government and on Capitol Hill.