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
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
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
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
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