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Report: Fast food ads target youth

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse

As part of her continued fight against childhood obesity, first lady Michelle Obama recently pleaded with the food service industry to create healthier menu options and to restrain its marketing campaigns directed at children.

The industry, and fast food restaurants in particular, have been widely criticized for selling and advertising fatty, salty and sugary foods — and consequently, for their contribution to the nation’s obesity epidemic.

“As a mom, I know it is my responsibility, and no one else’s, to raise my kids,” Obama said earlier this fall during an address to the National Restaurant Association, the food service industry’s primary lobby.

“But we have to ask ourselves, what does it mean when so many parents are finding their best efforts undermined by an avalanche of advertisements aimed at our kids.”

 A new report detailing fast food nutrition and marketing to children substantiates Obama’s pleas. The report, released last week by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, found that on average, preschoolers view nearly three fast food ads each day, children ages 6-11 view three-and-a-half fast food ads, and teens, nearly five.

This exposure to fast food advertising has increased in previous years — in 2009, preschoolers saw 21 percent more fast food ads than in 2003, and children saw 34 percent more, and teens, 39 percent more.

African American youth are hit the hardest, according to the report — black children see 56 percent more fast food advertising than white children, and black teens see 46 percent more than white teens. A greater number of hours spent in front of a television account for some of the discrepancy in ad viewing between blacks and whites — but not all of it, since many ads are targeted specifically to African Americans, the study showed.

“Fast food ads appear more frequently during African American-targeted TV programming than during general audience programming,” the report explained. “Fast food advertisements are also prevalent on Spanish-language television networks, comprising nearly half of all ads.”

But black youth are not just seeing a greater number of fast food advertisements — they are also viewing more unhealthy foods. The report also calculated the number of calories depicted in each ad, and African American children ages 2-11 see 617 calories in each fast food ad, totaling 2,099 calories of fast food every day. White children in the same age group see significantly fewer calories in fast food advertising — 575 per ad and 1,160 each day.

The discrepancy is even wider amongst teenagers. African American teens view 3,184 calories in fast food advertising each day, over 1,000 calories more than white teens see.

To achieve this saturation of advertising, fast food restaurants spent more than $4.2 billion on marketing and advertising last year, including $660 million on marketing exclusively to young people. At these rates, children and adolescents see more advertisements for fast food than for any other kind of food.

And it works. In 2009, the top 20 fast food restaurants brought in $117 billion in sales. McDonald’s topped the group with $30 billion annual sales, and Burger King brought in $10 billion.

Although McDonald’s and Burger King, the industry’s two largest fast food marketers, joined the Children’s Food and Beverage Initiative and pledged to limit its depiction of unhealthy foods in advertising to children, the report demonstrates the ineffectiveness of this promise.

For instance, while these two franchises show healthy sides and beverages in their advertising to kids, inside their restaurants, they automatically serve french fries and soda with kids’ meals 86 and 55 percent of the time.

In addition, a large number of McDonald’s and Burger King ads do not even feature the healthy food they promised to show — their ads instead focus on toy giveaways or building brand loyalty. And despite these pledges to reform, both restaurants increased television advertising significantly since 2007.

Fast food restaurants have also expanded their marketing tactics beyond television and radio to include websites, Facebook, Twitter, text messages.

But it is not marketing alone that is dangerous to children. As the report showed, when visiting a fast food restaurant, children consume up to 200 calories more than the recommended limits for lunch and dinner, and teens consume up to 700 calories beyond dietary recommendations for these meals. While these excess calories would not pose a health threat if consumed infrequently, one third of American youth, between ages 2 and 17, eat fast food every day.

“While all this consumption is good for fast food companies’ bottom line, it is terrible for young people’s health,” the report stated.

“Our results show that the fast food industry’s promises to market less unhealthy food to young people are not enough,” said one of the study’s co-authors, Kelly Brownell, who is also director and co-founder of the Rudd Center.

“If they truly wish to be considered partners in public health, fast food restaurants need to drastically reduce the total amount of marketing that children and teens see for fast food and the iconic brands that sell it.”

The entire report can be found at: http://www.fastfoodmarketing.org/media/FastFoodFACTS_Report.pdf.