Are fast-food chains backsliding in ads to kids?

A new study says the big operators are again using toy giveaways and movie tie-ins to appeal to youngsters.

By Bruce Kennedy Sep 3, 2013 9:20AM

McDonald's Happy Meal (© David Paul Morris/Getty Images)You might think kids are more media-savvy these days, given their constant exposure to advertising. And indeed, the industry has made efforts to avoid exploiting those immature consumers. In the mid-1970s, U.S. advertisers set up the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) as a self-regulating program to promote responsible advertising to children.

In 2006, a group of America's leading food and beverage companies joined with the Better Business Bureau in something called the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), which is supposed to shift advertising primarily directed to children toward better food choices and healthier lifestyles. Each company involved in the Initiative also agreed to limit the use of celebrity and movie tie-ins in child-directed ads.

But a new study finds several fast-food companies that are part of the CFBAI aren't living up to their pledges and are using toy premiums and movie tie-ins to attract kids.

"When we first saw the ads, we were shocked,” James Sargent, a professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth College's Geisel School of Medicine and one of the six researchers who conducted the study, told Adweek. "It's hard to tell with the kids ads what they are marketing; food was an afterthought."

The study, published in the scientific journal Plos One, looked at all national TV ads by the top 25 "quick service restaurants" over a one-year period, from 2009 to 2010. It also compared adult-targeted vs. kid-targeted advertising and found that when it came to the ads geared for children, food was secondary.

Researchers say 70% of the fast-food ads meant for kids were produced by McDonald's (MCD), and 29% came from Burger King (BKW). Of those ads, 79% were aired on just four channels: Cartoon Network, owned by Time Warner (TWX); Nickelodeon & Nicktoons, both owned by Viacom (VIA); and Disney's (DIS) XD.

Some interesting stats:

  • Food packaging was shown in 88% of the children's ads compared to 23% of ads produced for adults.

  • Street views of the fast-food restaurants were show in 41% of kid ads versus 12% of adult ads.

  • Toy premiums or giveaways were shown in 69% of kids ads versus 1% of adult ads.

  • Movie tie-ins were present in 55% of kid ads versus 14% of adult advertisements.

Not everyone agrees with the study's findings. CARU director Wayne Keeley told Adweek McDonald's and Burger King have been model participants in the program -- and have respected CARU's recommendations to discontinue challenged ads.

But the study's researchers say, given national concerns about obesity and fast-food consumption, food industry advertising needs more oversight. And while self-regulation efforts can succeed, they say, they also suggest yearly evaluations by a governmental agency like the Federal Trade Commission.

More on moneyNOW

Sep 3, 2013 9:30AM
The problem isn't advertisers or fast food restaurants.  The problem is the transformation of our culture over the last few decades to where everyone wants to blame someone or something else instead of taking responsibility for their own behavior.  We need less "initiatives" and "programs" and "commissions" and "councils" and more personal responsibility.

First rule of parenting - learn to say "No" and reinforce it with your actions.
Sep 3, 2013 9:56AM

"what differance does it make now?"  - hillary clinton.


read: who cares what mcdonalds is advertising to sell their product.  as a consumer, you dont have to buy it for your kids.  learn to say no once in a while.  quit blaming mcdonalds for your kids obesity.


be a better parent.


now watch the thumbs downs roll in from parents who want to refuse responsibility for their kids eating habits.

Sep 3, 2013 10:04AM

When I was a kid, I begged Mom to take me to McDonalds every day for a Happy Meal.


She would say NO.


Is parenting a lost art?



I did get to go there on my birthday :-)

Sep 3, 2013 2:28PM
Parents have definitely become more spineless than when I was a kid.  Did the word "no" become obsolete.  No, you can't have that.  It doesn't matter how many temper tantrums you throw (in my house that got you spanked) still can't have it.  Why is that hard?
Sep 3, 2013 2:43PM

If you child asked, begged and cried to be taken out to a bar for an alcoholic drink, would just give in?  If they asked for prescription drugs that they didn't need, would you say yes?  If the begged to go out and play on a busy highway, would you say yes?  I REST MY CASE!


I raised five kids and in my house, fast food was a treat!  If we were out shopping for something special or having a special outing, then we would stop at McDonald's as a special treat.  It was never and still is not a part of their regular diet.  They are raising my grandchildren the same way.  They target kids with tons of commercials for toys at Christmas, they want everyone they see, but they don't get them all.  Is there a difference?  It is the parents choice, not the child's so it does not matter what commercial are throw at them!

Sep 3, 2013 9:58AM

i dont think a day has gone by in the past week where msn authors havent targeted mcdonalds specifically.


its downright pathetic and obviously an agenda is being served by these so called writers

Sep 3, 2013 2:59PM
Here we go again. Lets not take responsibility for our own actions. Its up the parents what the kids eat.
Sep 3, 2013 2:22PM

Saying "No" to your kid, when they want that fast food, won't kill them.


In all probability, you'll actually prolong their life by avoiding that trash. So just say "No".

Sep 3, 2013 12:46PM
So what if they are? If you don't know how to say no, then you never should have had kids.
Sep 3, 2013 2:22PM
when I was a kid in school there were one, maybe two well-overweight kids in the class.  now it looks like at least half.
Sep 3, 2013 3:05PM
The main problem with childhood obesity is not fast food commercials.  It is the rising prices of healthy food!  If you have 5 children to feed, you can buy two 1 lb boxes of pasta, or packaged mac and cheese and hot dogs and feed the family for less than $10.00.  The prices of fresh fruits and vegetables has sky rocketed.  The price of hamburg is ridiculous!  When we were kids we were fed a lot of hamburger, potatoes, bananas and all the things that my Mom could buy cheap.  I went shopping yesterday and 5 lbs. of potatoes were $4.99, hamburger was $4.29 lb,  Apples and Oranges were on sale for $1.99 lb.  They say their is no inflation and hasn't been for a while.  My question is:  When was the last time one of these guys went into a supermarket?  The cost of milk, bread and all of the essentials has risen, salaries have not!  PLEASE DON'T SAY THEN YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE HAD SO MANY KIDS!  That is like saying if you couldn't afford health insurance you shouldn't have gotten sick!  Come on!  My kids are all grown, I have two boys left at home.  I used to spend about $200 a week food shopping to feed my husband, myself, five kids and anybody else who wanted to stop by and eat.  Now I spend over $300 a week and find myself having to run to the store during the week for the things I forgot to buy.
Sep 3, 2013 2:11PM

"But the study's researchers say, given national concerns about obesity and fast-food consumption, food industry advertising needs more oversight."


What? By whom? Is someone proposing another federal government entity to count individual caloric intake and to assess fines (taxes) when some arbitrary amount is exceeded?

Sep 3, 2013 1:47PM
I agree with all those in favor of 'personal responsibility and/or parental responsibility'! We can't blame anyone else for what we put in our mouths or the reasons why! (this statement excluded those with medical conditions of course) And our children look to us to set examples and limits! Saying 'no' in your child's best interest is the foundation of parenthood. My heart always go out to very obese children, (who do not suffer from a medical condition that causes their condition) they haven't got the information to say 'no' to a bad choice so it's up to Mom and Dad! Turn off the TV, skip the drive in, make a picnic of healthy life sustaining food and go to the park when possible! If it's not possible weather wise, make a picnic indoors on your living room floor! Your kids will enjoy the time spent with you eating good for them food so much more than any 'toy' they got from a fast food restaurant!
Sep 3, 2013 5:27PM
I like a 1/4 pounder once in a wile. When I was a kid in the 60's the family went to McDonald's maybe 4 times a year! It was fun to sit in the car and eat! I don't ever remember begging to go. Do kids really beg to go to McDonald's? My kids never begged to go. I'm sure they saw alot of commercials? Maybe Moms don't have time to cook anymore and the kids don't know that a good home cooked meal is way way better then fast food. I don't know!  
Sep 3, 2013 2:10PM

come on people-- its called freedom or choice . and its your choice to go to mcds.  only thing their fault is good food.. don't let your BRATS run your lives .leave mcds alone..



Sep 3, 2013 7:21PM

I don't think the issue with obesity has much to do with the food being eaten as it does with the exercise issue.  Kids today do not exercise nearly enough, it's sit in front of the TV or play with a tablet or video games...My daughter is 8 and very healthy and a normal weight, I do not restrict her

diet at all, she is not much of a sweet eater and she prefers water over soda and she likes the occasional happy meal (the nasty apples go to the rabbit).  Fortunately she is very active, always

dancing, swimming ect. but also does her share of video games and TV.  I think a lot of the problem

is working parents and minimal time to cook a decent meal, there is a fast food joint every 1/2 block and sometimes it's a lot easier to grab a burger at 8:00 then go home and cook.  Also I think there is

a safety factor involved, with all the weirdo's out there now. When I was a kid my friends and I were

running around the neighborhood, riding bikes, playing hide n seek, etc. now most of us would not

dare let our kids out unattended, my daughter goes no further then the front yard. Many things have

changed dramatically over the years. I do not believe advertising has anything to do with it, my daughter has never wanted to go to McDonalds just to get the toy in a happy meal.

Sep 3, 2013 5:16PM

It is sickening for the baiting that these web pages do to get a poll of some kind on every asinine question related to innumerous subject matter.  The poll questions are framed in the same scenario as this question: "Are you still beating your wife?"

Here is my response. Yes, corporations use tie-ins with toys and food and any other thing they can to get people to buy their food, soap, toothpaste, clothes, I-pad, phone, computer, gps system, or any other product you can think of. There someone said the redundant thing!

Sep 3, 2013 3:27PM
Really? "Yes, yes, yes, or no?" You should maybe add more yes answers to that poll, it isn't biased enough yet.
Sep 3, 2013 10:30PM
I do not like it when fast food businesses market toys for movies that young kids should NOT watch.  For example, Batman toys are on McDonald's website today.  PG-13 movies are not for young kids; even after my kids reached the age of 13, they saw very few if any PG-13 movies!!  
Sep 3, 2013 10:21PM
Reference "fast food burgers".   If your eating burgers at a fast food joint like McD' are not eating hamburger.  I wont gross you out and explain to you what your really eating, but I wont eat it and refuse to let my child eat it.  It barely qualifies as meat.  Just remember from an old cattleman....if they are cooking it and you cant smell it.....its not good meat.    Go to a great hamburger place and you can smell the meat cooking and the aroma will pull you in.   But if it was real meat a big mac would cost $11.00.   
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