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“Healthy” Fast Food Ads Often Misleading, Study Finds


What happens when kids see a fast food advertisement for apples? They think those apples are french fries.

A study published in the new issue of JAMA Pediatrics finds that confusion abounds when children see healthy foods in fast food television ads. Although leading fast food restaurants agreed to include healthy foods in their marketing targeted to kids back in 2009, marketers are often misleading in how they present those foods, researchers say.

And because of that, kids have a tough time recognizing the healthy food in the ads. Only 51 percent of children could properly identify milk in a McDonald’s ad, while just 10 percent of kids could positively identify apples in an advertisement produced by Burger King — probably because in that ad, the apples were cut up like french fries and placed in a french fries container.

“Apple slices in the BK image were presented deceptively in the shape of french fries, packaged in a french fry container, and labeled Fresh Apple Fries. Children’s confusion of apples with french fries in the BK television image, which applied across all ages, could be considered deceptive under industry standards,” researchers write.

To conduct the study, researchers asked a sample of 99 children ages 3 to 7 to identify food and beverages in television ads from McDonald’s and Burger King that aired from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011. The ads featured milk and apples, and children were asked to share what they saw.

While kids had a difficult time identifying the apples in the Burger King ad, 80 percent correctly identified them in the McDonald’s spot. The opposite was true when it came to milk, as 70 percent of children correctly identified the drink in the Burger King ad but only 52 percent did for McDonald’s.

Researchers believe the difference comes in how the two chains package milk. Both containers displayed the word “milk.” Burger King’s container was pictured as white (like milk itself) while McDonald’s container is blue with a clown picture on it, suggesting making the container look more like the product will help children recognize it more easily.

The study also notes there is very little oversight taking place, as the industry’s self-regulatory body often fails to take corrective action. While the Children’s Advertising Review Unit — administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus to oversee marketing guidelines for ads aimed at kids — did call on Burger King to make changes to how the company promotes toys to kids, it didn’t address the apple slice depiction. Nonetheless, Burger King began selling Apple Slices instead of Fresh Apple Fries by 2012.

“Continued failures at self-regulation would suggest the need for government oversight for children’s advertising or legal action under consumer protection law,” researchers conclude.

Click here to read the full study, titled “Children’s Reaction to Depictions of Healthy Foods in Fast-Food Television Advertisements.”