Fast-food companies including McDonald's and Burger King may have decreased advertising aimed at children and gone so far as to put more nutritious foods in kids' meals, but that's not enough, according to one study.
According to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, too many children are seeing fast-food ads on TV not aimed at children and too many restaurants are still introducing non-nutritious items to the adult menu, canceling out any supposed good. That's to say nothing of the restaurants increasing their marketing to children and to minorities.
The report, Fast Food Facts 2013, is a follow-up to a 2010 study by Yale, which found that fast-food chains were marketing to kids more than ever. The 2010 study examined the marketing practices of 12 major fast-food chains; the new study looked into the practices of 18 major chains including McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Subway and KFC.
In the last few years, the report said, there are a few positive developments, such as some healthier sides and beverages in most restaurants' kids meals -- but the chains have a long way to go to promote only healthier fast-food options to kids.
For one, the report said that despite posturing by the industry with self-regulated nutrition standards, only 3% of all kids' meal combos met the industry's own Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative and the Kids LiveWell nutrition standards. McDonald's and Burger King are part of the CFBAI and Wendy's, Burger King, Denny's, Chili's and others are part of Kids LiveWell, which bases its nutritional criteria off the 2010 USDA dietary guidelines, among other considerations.
Elaine Kolish, director at the CFBAI, said in a statement: "The Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative is proud that its quick-serve-restaurant participants, McDonald's and Burger King, are complying with their CFBAI commitments and leading the way with ads for healthier children's meals."
"While we can't comment on a study we haven't seen, it's important to recognize that the restaurant industry remains committed to providing an array of nutritious offerings for children," said Joy Dubost, director of nutrition at the National Restaurant Association, the group behind Kids LiveWell. "The industry has also led the way in advocating that nutrition information be made available to consumers in chain restaurants through a national menu labeling standard. Measures like this will help empower consumers when they dine out."
How do you count "marketing to kids"?
But according to Jennifer Harris, director-marketing initiatives at the Yale Rudd Center, not enough has changed. In 2012, the fast-food industry spent $4.6 billion marketing "mostly unhealthy products, and children and teens remained key audiences for that advertising," according to the report.
Overall, most fast-food chains increased their advertising to kids, but kids ages 6 to 11 years old saw 10% fewer ads for fast food. That decrease was driven by McDonald's and Burger King, the former of which reduced TV advertising to kids by 13%, while Burger King reduced it by 50%, according to the report. But McDonald's continued to advertise more to kids than to teens or adults on TV -- the only restaurant to do so.
And chains like Wendy's and Subway advertised regular-menu items like Frostys, the Baconator and footlong subs on kids TV networks, said the report, though Wendy's, for one, would argue that it's not targeting children.
A spokesman for Wendy's said that while Wendy's does advertise regular-menu items on the Cartoon Network, it is only doing so during Adult Swim, the channel's late-night platform that airs content for adults. "Our advertising on the Cartoon Network is geared toward adults. Children are not targeted."
But the 2013 report seems to be putting fast-food marketers on the hook for ads seen by kids and teens on other networks and at times of day not particularly targeted at children. "We know kids watch a lot of Nick at Nite, Adult Swim, ABC Family. [Marketers] don't count that as advertising to kids, though," Ms. Harris said.
The CFBAI's Ms. Kolish countered that it is "focused on advertising directed to children under age 12, not all ads children may see, such as ads on prime-time dramas and reality shows where children are usually a small minority of the audience. For example, children under age 12 were less than seven percent of the audience in the 2013 season of American Idol, and our objective is not to restrict advertising directed to adults who are the majority of the audience of that and similar programs." In child-directed advertising, she added, both McDonald's and Burger King advertise only meals that meet meaningful nutrition criteria.
"The restaurants will probably say that's not their fault that kids are watching, but they can't say it's not their fault when they know it's happening and they're not doing anything to stop it," said Ms. Harris. "They may not care, but then they can't say they want to improve children's health and that they're concerned about kids health."
Still selling hamburgers and fries
The report also takes aim at the adult menu. While chains like McDonald's did revamp some kids' meals offerings, fast-food restaurants simultaneously rolled out unhealthy regular-menu items at the same rate, according to the report, ultimately keeping the ratio of healthy-to-unhealthy items the same as 2010's report. McDonald's in 2011 changed its Happy Meal to automatically include apples and a smaller portion of fries. Happy Meals account for an estimated 10% of its U.S. sales. Taco Bell in June killed off its Kids Meals -- a move that meant very little to the chain's business, as it wasn't a money maker (it accounted for only 0.5% of its sales), and the chain rarely marketed the offering anyhow.
"In the past three years, there's been a lot of press about companies offering healthier options, [such as] Burger King's Satisfries. You'd think there would be all these great changes on restaurant menus, but...they have been introducing healthier food but they've been introducing regular food at the same rates," said Ms. Harris.
The report also examined what it called a racial disparity between Hispanic kids, African-American kids and white kids. The 2010 report found that African-American kids saw approximately 50% more advertising than white kids. The new report now shows that African-American kids and teens see 60% more fast-food ads than white kids the same age.
Fast-food advertising spending on Spanish-language TV increased 8%. KFC and Burger King increased their spending by 35% to 41%, while reducing English-language advertising. For Hispanic kids, especially young ones, their viewing percentage has gone up as well. According to the report, Hispanic preschoolers, a population the report said was a high risk for obesity, saw at least one fast-food ad on Spanish-language TV every day, a 16% increase in 2012 vs. 2009.
A spokeswoman for McDonald's said: "Since January 2013, 100% of our national communications to children under the age of 12 have contained a nutrition or active lifestyle message. In addition, the food and beverages McDonald's advertises to children meet the uniform nutrition criteria set forth in the CFBAI. We recognize the positive role we can play in the lives of families and we remain steadfast in upholding our commitment."
A KFC spokesman said: "KFC does not advertise on TV or radio programs specifically aimed at children under 12 years old."
A spokesman for Burger King said the chain is "committed to responsible marketing practices to children and teens. With regard to advertising to children, [Burger King] works closely with the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) and the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) to make sure that our advertising depicts our pledge-compliant children's meals. "
The report also found that marketers are upping ad spend online. McDonald's display ads for the Happy Meal increased 63% in 2012 vs. 2009 to 31 million ads monthly. Three-quarters appeared on kids' websites like Nick.com and CartoonNetwork.com. The report also said that McDonald's advertised menu items like the Filet-o-Fish on kids websites, including Nick.com. Marketers like McDonald's and Wendy's are going mobile, too, with apps like McPlay and Wendy's Pet Play Games.