Proof Requiring Healthy Fast Food Marketing for Kids Is Pointless

BurkerKing.comBurkerKing.comThroughout my education, only once did I ever encounter a professor with a marked and intense "liberal bias." Her hobby horse was banning junk food advertising to children, and sometimes adults too (just for good measure). She routinely brought in papers or people from the Center for Science in the Public Interest—the most disingenuous and biggest public health nanny organization of which I'm aware—on the need to force companies to promote healthier food for kids. My professor was nothing but fair with my grades, but it was also clear she thought I was an idiot.

I bring this up merely to frame my glee at this new study, which shows healthy fast food advertising to kids largely fails. "Since 2009, quick-service restaurant chains, or fast-food companies, have agreed to depict healthy foods in their advertising targeted at children," the study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, notes. So researchers set out to determine how children interpreted these ads.

They showed 99 children, ages 3 to 7 years old, still images from McDonald's and Burger King advertising featuring milk and apples. Children were asked what they saw "and not prompted to respond specifically to any aspect of the images." The results? 

  • 81 percent recalled seeing french fries in the Burger King ad, although neither ad featured fries
  • 10 percent identified apples in the Burger King and 70 percent identified milk
  • 80 percent mentioned apples for the McDonald's ad and 52 percent mentioned milk

"Of the 4 healthy food images, only depiction of apples by McDonald’s was communicated adequately to the target audience," note the researchers. One might think this would be evidence that requiring healthy food advertising to children is sort of a pointless proposition.

The study authors, however, see it as an issue of deceptive advertising. "Televised depictions of apple slices by BK misled the children in this study, although no action was taken by government or self-regulatory bodies," they conclude.

But the "misleading" depiction of Burger King's apples is actually an accurate depiction of what the kid's meal apples look like—skinless, fry shaped, and served in what's generally thought of as a fry container. Burger King even calls them "apple fries." I think we can surmise that Burger King did this in an attempt to make apple slices more appealing for children, instead of the dreaded "health food" option. Studies have shown that adults are more likely to choose healthy fast food options when they're not packaged or framed that way.

With the apple fries, Burger King seems to have executed this "nudge" quite well. In fact, it's exactly the kind of thing public health agencies and advocates generally encourage: making health food look more like junk food to make it more appealing for kids. It's why hip baby carrot packages are taking over grocery stores. Apparently, Burger King did it too well

If children see fast food apples and register fries, it's probably based on their experiences eating at fast food restaurants. Maybe their parents always order them the fries. Maybe their parents are brilliant and have convinced them apples really are fries. The point is it's strange to expect restaurant advertising to override associations forged by kids' actual lives. 

The study's lead author laments that the fast food industry spends millions on "ads that aim to develop brand awareness and preferences in children who can't even read or write, much less think critically about what is being presented." But you know who should be able to think critically? These children's parents. Who happen to be the ones holding the proverbial pursestrings and actually making the family's food decisions. 

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • SlV||

    Where did you go to sc hool ? One seems very low.

  • Certified Public Asskicker||

    Yeah, I call bullshit.

  • Zeb||

    And when? Though one doesn't ask that sort of thing of a lady.

  • radar||

    Undergrad Ohio University, grad American University. Don't think that matters much, though. Outside of a handful of explicitly far-right institutions (the likes of Liberty and Bob Jones), there is no fucking way on earth that anyone can go to college and grad school in the US for 6 years and encounter just one obnoxious leftist professor. Hell, Pepperdine's supposed to be a conservative school and in one damned year there I had two of them.

  • Ornithorhynchus||

    It sounds plausible to me. I attended a big state university and I only had one professor who regularly pushed a political issue in class (a biologist who was a very staunch environmentalist). I also had a geology professor who spent one day in class on a mildly conspiratorial rant about Soviet influence in strategically-located countries, but this was the only time he ever discussed politics.

    I know that some of my other teachers were pretty left-wing, and it's likely there were others too that I never knew about, but none of them talked about it in class.

  • JD the elder||

    It sounds plausible to me too, and I majored in anthropology, which is mostly a left-wing field. I had one obviously left-wing feminist professor, but even she was fairly reasonable about it (i.e., would argue with you, but did not mark you down just for disagreeing with her, as long as you could make a reasonable case).

  • Zeb||

    My experience was similar in college. I am sure that pretty much all of my professors (maybe one or two exceptions, possibly more it's hard to tell with math professors) were ridiculous leftists. But I don't recall any of them making it an issue in class.

  • SlV||

    I must have gone to a commie school.

  • Bardas Phocas||

    You might be screaming "No, no, no" and all they hear is "Who wants cake?"

  • Paul.||

    She routinely brought in papers or people from the Center for Science in the Public Interest

    Goddamnit, does no one obey the rules around here? Every one of those words in bold require scare quotes.

  • ||

    Not every one. Whether it's a "center" is still in dispute.

  • Paul.||

    Yes, every one. "Center"-- questionable meaning. "Science"-- they aint. "Public" yeah right. "Interest" says who?

    I will let the for/in/the go.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Also, 'for','in', and 'the' are believable by themselves.

  • Ted S.||

    "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'."

    Mary McCarthy, on Lillian Hellman.

    (Mary McCarthy was the sister of Kevin McCarthy of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.)

  • Paul.||

    You convinced me, the for/in/the should be in scare quotes too.

  • BuSab Agent||

    It's the junk science equivalent of the Holy Roman Empire.

  • LiveFreeOrDiet||

    Neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire?

  • BuSab Agent||

    Precisely

  • B.P.||

    "The study's lead author laments that the fast food industry spends millions on "ads that aim to develop brand awareness and preferences in children who can't even read or write, much less think critically about what is being presented.""

    And yet, study author, your the ones interviewing the little fuckers for your study.

  • B.P.||

    er, you're. Goddamnit.

  • ||

    Here's a novel idea for parents: Don't let your young children watch tv. I know it's hard to get down on the floor and play imaginatively with them, but Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, just do it.*

    *I understand that some parents do it just to get a quick break and something done around the house. But then those parents are using the tv responsibly so probably aren't complaining about those evul commercials.

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    Or let them know, at a very early age, that TV is full of liars. They can handle truth.

  • BuSab Agent||

    My grand daughter watches no commercials whatsoever and somehow, still knows what a french fry is. How can this be?

  • ||

    Center for Science in the Public Interest—the most disingenuous and biggest public health nanny organization of which I'm aware

    That's for sure. The fact that the founder, Jacobson, is a militant vegan doesn't affect his objectivity, cause he's a scientist.

  • LiveFreeOrDiet||

    Bravo to Elizabeth Nolan Brown for that most apt use of the term "disingenuous." I'm going to have to reread every word she's written with a much more serious eye.

    And your assessment of Jacobson ain't bad neither. Sometimes I feel like a lonely voice on the subject of CSPI. Not today!

  • ||

    He may be a liberal progressive, but he's first and foremost a scientist.

    Walmart doesn't exactly conjure up warm and fuzzy feelings among many of us who call ourselves progressives. Though the company's huge footprint in the marketplace means consumers can pay lower prices for clothing, electronics, and increasingly, food -- it has also resulted in the shuttering of many family businesses.

    ( . . . )

    The liberal in me doesn't like the idea of a company as big and as powerful as Walmart. But the scientist in me requires that I put the laudatory things that Walmart is doing on the scales as well.
  • LiveFreeOrDiet||

    He's first and foremost a shriveled little jerk. He denies things he has said on tape and in writing. He seems to want to ban things just to ban them. I've posted a partial list a few times of some of the things he has tried to get banned. It takes 4 or 5 posts to fit it all.

  • Ted S.||

    Yes, let's ban frying in tallow and replace the tallow with trans fats.

  • LiveFreeOrDiet||

    "Fat head!" I keep forgetting to order the new "Director's Cut" version. I'm wearing one of Chavera's "Wheat is murder" t-shirts right now.

    Tom is more Paleo than I am, but he's on the right track. My take is more Gary Taubes flavored with some Weston A. Price. I like empirical evidence and systematic science. An over-arching general theory just doesn't quite satisfy.

  • Andrew S.||

    My 4 year old is constantly asking to go to McDonalds, or Wendy's. Because she sees the commercials. Because that's what kids do.

    I, however, am a parent, and am able to control how often we go to those places. We do so occasionally, but not nearly as often as she'd sometimes like. Shocking, I know.

    So much of this is "Parenting is harrrrd", and it's easier if everyone around you is restricted so you don't have to do quite so much.

    (Besides, she's more interested in going to get bagels anyways, despite the lack of advertising from Einstein's)

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    Sometimes my 2 year old doesn't eat enough, and only wants milk. If it persists for more than a day or 2, I just take him to Mickey D's, and he slams down a bacon mcdouble.
    Along the lines of what you said, though. It's occasional, and I decide.

  • LiveFreeOrDiet||

    When my kids were little we had a regular Sunday lunch routine. My wife got quiet time by me taking the kids to McNasty's. I would park myself next to the Play Place door and read a book. It was hard to get them to come out of the Play Place long enough to eat the McCrap.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    My McDonald's intake was pretty much exclusively after basketball games.

  • ||

    If you skip the Coke it's not a bad meal.

  • LiveFreeOrDiet||

    I usually get two McDoubles and a large water, and discard the bottom buns.

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    A mcdouble double?

  • LiveFreeOrDiet||

    High protein, high fat, low-ish carb hand meal for when appointments have me driving all day!

  • ||

    We go to McDonalds on occasion. The hard part is to get the kids to eat before they play with the toy.

    Nanny staters who try to ban toys with kids meals clearly don't have children.

  • LiveFreeOrDiet||

    Or rather, they hate breeders, even when they've managed to crossbreed with humans themselves.

  • sarcasmic||

    Taking my 4 year old to fast food is a rare treat.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Yeah. My dad took us as a treat maybe a couple times a year. We did birthdays at Tommys pizza though and often still do.

  • JW||

    I, however, am a parent, and am able to control how often we go to those places.

    You're lucky. When my spawn were youngins', they pistol whip me, tie me up and throw me in the backseat. After they drove to McDonalds, they'd force me to pay for their...their...junk food. [breaks down and sobs uncontrollably]

  • ||

    This is why guns should be be illegal. Your plight is legion.

  • ||

    My 2 year old thinks McDonald's only serves apple slices, oatmeal, and on occasion egg whites. And I plan on keeping it that way as long as possible because, you know, it's MY job to raise her.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Actually my oldest daughter always wanted a salad there:)

  • SlV||

    You're a sadistic parent

  • ||

    Yep. We ate at McD's as a "family outing". It was a big deal, and we didn't do it very often.

  • John-David||

    Don't forget, there are still parents who think that french fries (and potatoes as a whole) are vegetables. Same with corn. I'm really not sure why the USDA does the same.

  • Zeb||

    Corn is a grain, I suppose, but potatoes are vegetables. The ridiculous assumption is that all vegetables have the same nutritional content.

  • LiveFreeOrDiet||

    Dietary-wise, potatoes are a starch, like grains are starches. I find I do better with potatoes than wheat, at least.

  • JW||

    My professor was nothing but fair with my grades, but it was also clear she thought I was an idiot.

    Let's be fair, she thinks that everyone is an idiot. Little, babbling idiots, who, if not for their firm, but guiding, hand, would walk out into the middle of traffic to play.

    Every day that you live, is one more than you would have had without her sage wisdom.

  • jeeenmik||

    Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this - 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail
    ✒✒✒✒✒
    ✒✒✒✒✒✒✒✒✒✒✒✒✒✒ ­ w­w­w.­w­o­rk­b­a­rr.c­o­­m

  • gimmeasammich||

    At least this time the car that was bought is one that people might actually want, not some compact French death trap.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    Unfortunately, this is the BMW that anonbot is referring to.

  • From the Tundra||

  • ||

    Proggies attempt to control the minute details of people's personal lives. Unexpectedly, things go awry.

    Who could have seen that coming?

  • LiveFreeOrDiet||

    Everybody.
    Personally i think the horrible side effects are their goals.

  • ||

    You are probably right.

    By the way, I am still mad at you. The Winchester '94 is a work of art. Write 'John Moses Browning was a genius' 1000x.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Yeah. Winchester '94 is definately on my wish list. I was just reading an interesting article on the history of lever actions last night. Of course Browning was given due props. You're correct. He was a genuis.

  • From the Tundra||

    Really a cool gun. Speaking of JB, I've been craving a 1911 lately. I know it's old tech, expensive, doesn't hold a shit-ton of rounds...

    I want one.

  • sarcasmic||

    My Model 10 is old tech, cheap, and holds even fewer rounds. I love that gun.

  • AlmightyJB||

    I'm a big 1911 .45 guy. I have a Stainless Officers Special. I love it. Needs a new extractor though. I will definitely be buying a full size one at some point.

  • Zeb||

    That's top of my list for rifles now too. But I think my next purchase will be a revolver.

  • LiveFreeOrDiet||

    My favorite handgun is a Stainless Ruger Police Service Six .357 Magnum I picked up used 25 years ago.

  • LiveFreeOrDiet||

    By the way, I am still mad at you. The Winchester '94 is a work of art. Write 'John Moses Browning was a genius' 1000x.

    Did you see my answer? I love the W94 and have several, including one my father gave me.
    And for my writing assignment: John Moses Browning was a genius.
    Ok, another 999 messages and I'm done!

  • Zeb||

    Why should fast food restaurants serve "healthy" food at all if they don't see a market for it that would make them money? They are places you go when you want some cheap, greasy fried food. You don't want your kids to eat that, don't fucking go there. McDonalds is not obliged to provide you with every food option that you might want. They sell fucking hamburgers and fries.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    But what if a gay couple wants McDonald's to cater their wedding reception? Can we compel McDonald's to serve healthier meals at the reception?

  • AlmightyJB||

    What if they want deep dish pizza.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    I think we can all agree that inter-pizza style marriage is an abomination.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    One of the things that is very refreshing about Five Guys Burgers and Fries is that it's not trying to pretend to be something it's not. Hell, it barely serves anything that isn't a burger a or fry.

  • AlmightyJB||

    We recently got one down the street. Thought the burgers were pretty good. Place is overpriced though.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    It seems to be going for something partway between fast food and restaurant, so the pricy is kind of weird/questionable.

  • ||

    It's the ingredients, staffing required to make everything on demand, and the peanuts.

  • Ted S.||

    Do they want to kill people with peanut allergies? ;-)

  • ||

    HAA! One of the Five Guys near my house has a big sign saying not to take the peanuts outside the restaurant because some kid in the neighborhood has an allergy.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    Plus they use fresh ingredients, and cook their food like you cook at home. Same with In-N-Out.

  • ||

    All this McD's talk is making me crave a double QP meal.

    I clearly need the guiding hand of the government and CSPI to help me.

  • LiveFreeOrDiet||

    Here's a bunch of broccoli with no butter. Verði þér að góðu!

  • NewWorldDan||

    This just sounds like bad science. What were the control ads like? You could show an ad for a car and half the kids would think it was a motorcycle because they like motorcycles. Kids are very good at seeing what they want to see. Also, they make terrible witnesses in court (or great ones, depending on your point of view).

  • Zeb||

    I think kids often say what they think that adults expect them to say. THis probably has a lot to do both with their questionable reliability as witnesses in court as well as their responses to surveys like this.

  • ||

    Ding ding ding. The term is "cargo cult science". People who aren't really scientists and have no real understanding of science can still get grants to go through the motions of science.

  • creech||

    When oh when are we just going to take kids away at the birthing center and put them in a properly controlled and regimented setting, staffed by Top. Men. and. Women., and not let them free until age 26?

  • ||

    When? In the early 1990's.

    See Ceausescue , Romania.

    It turns out great.

  • ||

    What the fuck is the point of serving kids apple slices if you are going to give them a packet of caramel sauce to drizzle all over it?

  • ||

    If you have to ask then you don't understand the motive.

  • Zeb||

    Probably so that parents will buy them more than once.

  • ||

    To be completly serious, french fries with ketchup is probably healthier. Caramel sauce is pure sugar.

  • BuSab Agent||

    blech. Everyone knows malt vinegar is the only appropriate (and) healthy condiment for fries.

  • ||

    I'm with you there. Also mayonaisse. Or Gravy.

  • BuSab Agent||

    also acceptable

  • Alien Invader||

    Throughout my education, only once did I ever encounter a professor with a marked and intense "liberal bias."

    Somehow I have a really hard time believing this.

    How many of them had a decidedly socialist bent, whether or not you would classify them as "liberals"? I'm surprised at how many people are unable to recognize socialism when it's sitting right in front of them.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement