Back of a child head's watching TV.

Feeding Our Children Fast-Food Ads

TikTok star Charli D’Amelio collaborated with Dunkin’ Donuts to launch “The Charli” drink in September 2020. Charli, notorious for sipping on Dunkin’ while dancing on TikTok, promoted its release to her 85.8 million followers. Charli’s Gen Z fans were eager to try her favorite drink. Within a month Charli’s promotional videos collectively garnered over 294 million views. To purchase The Charli, fans were required to download the Dunkin’ app, which increased app downloads by 57 percent. Dunkin’ isn’t the only fast-food company to tap into TikTok; McDonald’s promoted the “Travis Scott” meal by having fans share videos of them ordering in “Sicko Mode” and Chipotle hosted their #ChipotleLidFlip challenge with YouTuber David Dobrik. Despite the fast-food industry’s success with these promotions, fast-food advertisements on social media platforms must be regulated, as children’s exposure to these ads contributes to unhealthy dietary choices, and in turn to childhood obesity.

Currently, 19.3 percent of children in the United States are considered obese. Childhood obesity increases risk for adulthood obesity, which has its own increased risks of heart diseases, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. One contributor to the rise in childhood obesity is children’s overexposure to fast- food marketing. Fast-food companies use a range of techniques to build brand loyalty at a young age. TikTok may have popped up recently, but child-directed fast-food advertising has been a catalyst for childhood obesity for decades.

In the 1970s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) limited the amount of advertising time for children’s programming, but the FCC could not regulate advertisers’ content. In 1978, the Federal Trades Commission attempted to ban all child-directed television ads but plans were terminated due to threats from the TV and advertising industry. In the 1980s, FCC regulations eased under the Reagan administration and reversed years of petitioning to ban advertising from children’s programming. The Children’s Television Act of 1990 limited commercial time to twelve minutes per half-hour on weekdays and 10.5 minutes on weekends.

In 2006, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative was formed to “shift the mix of advertising primarily directed to children (‘child-directed advertising’) to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles.” Each of the nineteen participating fast-food companies, committed to self-designed pledges, agreed to dedicate at least 50 percent of their child-directed advertising efforts and messaging to healthier menu options. However, this voluntary initiative was poorly enforced, as companies amped up their child-directed advertisements disguised behind their false promises. For example, a McDonald’s Happy Meal commercial promoting McNuggets and McFries claimed to endorse healthier eating habits because they featured apple slices and chocolate milk in the background. Fast- food companies found loopholes to conceal their healthier promises as they continued to promote unhealthy options to young children.

In more recent years, we have seen a shift in children’s screen time transition from television viewing to time spent online. In 2019, two- to five-year-olds viewed an average of 830 fast-food TV ads, six- to eleven-year-olds viewed 786.5 ads, and twelve- to seventeen-year-olds years viewed 774.5 ads. For every one-hour increase in daily TV time, consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, fast food, and red and processed meat increases by 48.7 kcal per day. Similar research about digital marketing is ongoing and crucial, especially after the pandemic when the average child’s screen time jumped from four to eight hours a day.

Burger, fries, and soda in unmarked containers.
In 2019, two- to five-year-olds viewed an average of 830 fast-food TV ads, six- to eleven-year-olds viewed 786.5 ads, and twelve- to seventeen-year-olds years viewed 774.5 ads. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

As screen time increases, so does exposure to unhealthy fast-food marketing. In 2019, the fast-food industry spent five billion dollars on child-directed advertising. Fast-food companies know that child-directed marketing has a powerful, direct impact on children’s dietary choices. Individuals develop eating habits at a young age, so kids recognize and remember branding.

“The [current] digital environment is so much more personal and so much more intrusive and pervasive,” said Kathryn Montgomery, a media policy professor at American University. “Marketing takes place across multiple platforms in an orchestrated way to reach and engage individual consumers and to do so repeatedly, which is not the same thing as what you see on television ten years ago.”

Ad campaigns cater to children by creating eye-catching, engaging content. Fast-food ads often incorporate games, celebrities, influencers, social media challenges, and slogans to steer children toward their restaurants. It’s common to see fast-food accounts participate in trends that relate to young consumers on a more personal level. This “advertainment” approach worked in Chipotle’s favor as they partnered with celebrities and influencers like Justin Bieber to launch their Super Bowl challenge, #TikTokTimeout, to promote Free Delivery Sundays. The video reached over 95 million people on TikTok, and over 2.5 million engagements when Bieber shared the post on Twitter and Instagram. Such strategies successfully promote food products to children and increase food companies’ profits, but they negatively influence children’s dietary choices and practices.

“Children are more vulnerable to advertising when it is integrated into content. The fact that children who spend hours a day on YouTube and TikTok feel like they have relationships with influencers makes these junk food pitches even more powerful,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Ideally, to protect underage children from stealthy fast-food marketing, children under thirteen should not have social media accounts, but underage children can easily bypass this restriction.

In order for children to maturely evaluate an advertisement, they must be able to (1) distinguish between commercial and noncommercial content; and (2) acknowledge the persuasive objective of the advertisement.[1] Children under five cannot differentiate ads from content, and children under eight do not comprehend advertisements’ persuasive intentions. That’s why child-directed digital advertising works so well: younger children are impressionable to commercial recall and product preferences. The fast-food industry knows this, and they take advantage of this vulnerability by creating positive associations with their products.

“Less time in front of TV screens is not protecting kids from fast-food TV ads,” said Dr. Frances Fleming-Milici, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center. “Now more than ever parents need support in raising healthy children, and consistent exposure to ads featuring burgers, fries and pizza sabotages their best efforts. Media companies, policymakers and advocates can play a vital role in demanding an end to irresponsible advertising.”

As shown by the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, self-regulation in the fast-food industry is ineffective. The industry’s top priority is profit, not the well-being of its consumers. Government regulation is necessary to protect children from targeted fast-food marketing, but previous attempts show that opposing the fast-food industry can be a difficult endeavor. In the meantime, social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram should adopt policies that eliminate children’s online exposure to such content and align with the World Health Organization–UNICEF–Lancet Commission:

  1. Regulation applies to all children under eighteen
  2. Regulations include all marketing techniques (direct advertising, sponsored posts, product placement, influencer collaborations)
  3. Advertisements define unhealthy foods and beverages based on WHO endorsed criteria

Other developed countries, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and Sweden, have already implemented restrictions on child-directed fast-food advertising. It is time for the United States to stop exploiting children’s naivety for the benefit of the fast-food industry and pass similar policies. Social media platforms can aid in this process by filtering content to reduce children’s exposure to influential material.

Notes

  1. This informed consent approach parallels the informed consent, parental permission, and patient assent decision-making in pediatrics. A developmentally appropriate patient assent process reduces abuse of parental and/or physician power over children by encouraging autonomy and rationality. These steps encourage pediatric patients to engage in discussions about their health and build trust with their healthcare provider. As children mature, typically around fourteen, they may be capable of making their own informed health care decisions. Similar approaches are necessary to protect children against fast food media marketing.

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