It’s parenting problem #7,493. Your kid is having a tantrum for a kids’ meal because of the toy it includes. Television ads on children’s shows promising a “free toy with every kids’ meal” unfairly promote high-calorie, high-fat, fast-foods to young children, and that’s a problem parents don’t need — and kids don’t need the fast-food either.
Despite self-imposed guidelines directed at avoiding unfair or deceptive advertising to children, fast-food companies are not following them, according to a new study, and that’s a problem.
Because kids don’t understand advertising, guidelines for ads directed at children are managed by the Children’s Advertising Review Unit and administered by BBB National Programs. The guidelines state that premiums (toys, games) within commercials directed at children must be secondary to the food being advertised and avoid undue influence. The food and beverage industry plays a role in developing the guidelines and pledges to follow them.
About a fourth of preschoolers are already overweight or obese, yet the “free toy” gimmick is estimated to contribute to about a third of kids eating high-calorie, nutrient-poor, fast-food on any given day.
Dartmouth College researchers have studied the effects on children’s diets, behaviors and weight as a result of food marketing aimed at them in the past, but in the current study, they looked at whether the fast-food industry is even adhering to their own advertising guidelines.
The commercials aired to children for fast-food on Disney XD, Nickelodeon, Nicktoons and Cartoon Network over the course of one year were analyzed. Researchers calculated the percentage of words and seconds of visual airtime that included information about premiums for food, as well as the size of the toys or freebies on the television screen. Over 140 hours of airtime with more than 20,000 ads aimed at kids from 11 fast-food restaurants were broadcast in that year.
Over the course of the study, the researchers reported 28 unique commercials targeted kids for fast-food meals; 27 of them were for McDonald’s Happy Meals, giving McDonald’s 99.8 percent of total airtime. Toys or other premiums accounted for 53 percent of words spoken and 59 percent of visual airtime in those ads, not exactly secondary to the product being advertised per the guidelines. Pictures of the premiums took up nearly 10 percent of on-screen area, while pictures of the advertised food accounted for about 6 percent.
“I find it very interesting that these are self-regulatory guidelines or pledges that the companies have signed on to as part of an industry initiative,” researcher, Jennifer Emond, of Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine, said in a statement. “But they're not even adhering to their own pledges. We need to hold them accountable — through stronger oversight of child-directed marketing in the U.S., from an independent review body or regulatory agency.”
The study is published in Pediatrics.