CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Fast-food marketers have started responding to a study charging that fast-food companies are marketing to youth now more than ever -- but so far they haven't offered more than statements. Those named in the study say they offer plenty of healthy options and that the marketing aimed at children is consistent with responsible marketing practices.
The study released by Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity called "Evaluating Fast Food Nutrition and Marketing to Youth" examined the marketing efforts of 12 fast-food chains in the U.S., including McDonald's, Burger King, Yum Brands' Pizza Hut and KFC, Wendy's and Subway. The study said the fast-food industry spent more than $4.2 billion on marketing and advertising in 2009, according to Nielsen Co., focusing extensively on TV, the internet, social-media sites and mobile applications.
According to the study, children's exposure to fast-food TV ads is increasing, even for ads from McDonald's and Burger King, which have pledged to reduce unhealthy marketing to children. Compared with 2007, in 2009 children aged 6-11 saw 26% more ads for McDonald's and 10% more for Burger King.
Further, said the researchers, restaurants provide largely unhealthy defaults for the side dishes and drinks that come with kids' meals. As part of the study, Rudd sent anonymous shoppers to various fast-food restaurants and asked them to order kids' meals without specifying a side-dish preference. Although McDonald's and Burger King show only healthy sides and beverages in child-targeted advertising, the restaurants automatically served french fries with kids' meals at least 86% of the time, and soft drinks at least 55% of the time.
Fast feeders respond
The response? In a statement, Neil Golden, senior VP-chief marketing officer at McDonald's USA, said that "McDonald's remains committed to responsible marketing practices, including advertising and promotional campaigns for our youngest customers. Consistent with our 2006 commitment to the Council of Better Business Bureaus' Food Pledge, 100% of our children's advertising in the U.S. features dietary choices that fit within the 2005 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans." The statement went on to point out that the company "primarily" advertises its "375 calorie four-piece Chicken McNugget Happy Meal, which includes Apple Dippers, low-fat caramel dip and a jug of 1% low-fat milk."
It didn't respond to charges that those healthier options aren't the default offerings in some of its restaurants, stating only, "Since 2008, U.S. customers have purchased more than 100 million Happy Meals with Apple Dippers. In 2009 alone, McDonald's USA served 31 million gallons of milk -- more than triple the volume since we repackaged milk in our milk jugs, in 2004." The statement did not indicate how many Happy Meals were served without the apple side-dish or milk.
In response to questions about the study, Burger King issued the following statement: "As part of Burger King Corp.'s 'Have it your way' brand promise, we offer a variety of menu options that empower guests to choose items that are best for their lifestyle. In addition, as part of our 'BK Positive Steps' corporate-responsibility program, in 2007, [Burger King] pledged to restrict 100% of national advertising aimed at children under 12 to BK Kids Meals that meet stringent nutrition criteria."
Burger King did not respond to questions on whether there is local or regional advertising that is also restricted, or whether there are restrictions on advertising to kids over 12 years old.
The study also addressed what it considers the disparity in advertising aimed at minority children vs. their white counterparts. According to the results, African-American children and teens see at least 50% more fast-food ads than their white peers. McDonald's and KFC, in particular, specifically target African-American youth with TV advertising, targeted websites and banner ads.
KFC spokesman Rick Maynard said: "KFC does not advertise on TV or radio programs specifically aimed at children under 12 years old. KFC offers a variety of Kids Meal options under 300 calories. For example, a KFC Kids Meal with a Kentucky Grilled Chicken drumstick, corn, Sargento Light String Cheese and CapriSun Roarin' Water has only 230 calories." Mr. Maynard also said that less than 30% of calories for the mentioned meal come from fat.
Using Nielsen Co.'s gross ratings points, the study found that compared to 2003, preschoolers (2 to 5 years old) viewed 21% more fast-food TV ads in 2009; children (6 to 11 years old) viewed 34% more; and teens (12 to 17 years old) viewed 39% more.
The study found that Yum Brands restaurants didn't increase advertising to children during that time.
Rob Poetsch, a spokesman for Taco Bell, said, "We do not advertise on TV programming that targets children under 12 years old. Most menu items on our Kid's Meals can be ordered Fresco Style, which is a lower-calorie, lower-fat option.
Joy Dubost, the National Restaurant Association's director-nutrition and healthy living, said in a statement, "There can be no dispute that that the restaurant industry has been committed to providing a growing array of nutritious offerings for children. ... The industry has also led the way in advocating that nutrition information be made available to consumers in chain restaurants."
The study also found 40% of children aged 2-11 ask their parents to go to McDonald's at least once a week, and 15% of preschoolers ask to go every day -- 84% of parents report taking their child aged 2-11 to a fast-food restaurant at least once in the past week.
None of the fast feeders addressed the issue of parental responsibility.