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Fast Food Marketing: A Long Road Ahead


Fast food restaurants might have introduced healthier side items and beverages in kids’ meals, but the industry still spent $4.6 billion advertising mostly unhealthy products to children and teenagers in 2012 — and with so much money being spent to advertise unhealthy menu items to youngsters, public health experts warn consumption of fast food is likely to continue.

The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity unveiled its Fast Food FACTS 2013 report on Tuesday at the American Public Health Association conference in Boston. The follow-up to a 2010 report on the marketing tactics employed by the fast food industry, the report finds that the nutritional quality of menu items advertised to children and teens on television, the Internet, social media and mobile devices remains poor.

“Most fast food restaurants stepped up advertising to children and teens,” Jennifer Harris, the Rudd Center’s director of marketing initiatives and lead author of the report, said in a statement. “Most advertising promotes unhealthy regular menu items and often takes unfair advantage of young people’s vulnerability to marketing, making it even tougher for parents to raise healthy children.”

According to the report’s findings, children ages 6 to 11 saw 10 percent fewer television ads for fast food in 2012. However, children and teens continued to see three to five fast food ads on television every day, fast food marketing via social media and mobile devices “grew exponentially” and Spanish-language advertising to Hispanic preschoolers increased by 16 percent.

Meanwhile, there simply aren’t enough positive efforts by fast food companies to promote consumption of healthier products. The handful of restaurants that opted to advertise healthier meals made up only one-quarter of fast food ads viewed by children,

And only a very small percentage of kids’ meals actually qualify as healthy. Less than 1 percent of kids’ meals combinations meet nutrition standards recommended by experts, while just 3 percent meet the industry’s own standards under the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative and Kids LiveWell nutrition standards.

The report recommends the fast food industry stop marketing unhealthy items to children and teenagers and urges restaurants to apply stronger nutrition standards to all kids’ meals. In addition, the report suggests restaurants automatically provide healthier sides and beverages in kids’ meals, such as apple slices and low-fat milk, over French fries and soda.

The American Heart Association echoed those suggestions. AHA recommends that only healthy foods meeting specific nutritional criteria be marketed to children and discourages product placement of food brands in media. But AHA also recommends that advertising be used to promote positive messages about healthy foods and physical activity.

“Consumers want healthier choices. Marketing works both ways — it can drive healthier food choices,” said Dr. Clyde Yancy, a Voices for Healthy Kids initiative volunteer. “Research shows that when companies market and sell healthier products, it can be good for their bottom line. Restaurants should not only provide healthy options, but also advertise these healthier choices to parents and children and make transparent the nutritional value of all food choices.”

Click here to read the full report.