Does Fast Food Marketing Make Kids Fat?

A new study trumpets a dubious link between obese youngsters and the logos of food companies.


Kids recognize the McDonald's logo better than they do the FedEx logo. Kids are slightly more drawn to the former than to the latter. Obese kids are more drawn to the former latter than are healthy weight kids. These results are not patently obvious and have important policy implications.

These are some of the conclusions reached by researchers at the University of Missouri, Kansas City's B.R.A.I.N. Lab

A new study by researchers based at the lab argues that the brains of obese youngsters are wired to respond to the logos of food companies.

"When showed images of fast food companies, the parts of the brain that control pleasure and appetite lit up," writes Makini Brice in a summary of the research at Medical Daily. "The brains did not do the same when showed images from companies not associated with food," including BMW and FedEx.

The authors bill their research, published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (SCAN), as "the first study to examine children's brain responses to culturally familiar food and nonfood logos."

The researchers claim kids rate logos of food companies like McDonald's more "exciting" and "happier" than logos of non-food companies like BMW. 

"Food logos," they conclude in SCAN, "seem to be more emotionally salient than the nonfood logos, perhaps due to the survival salience of food as a biological necessity."

While that finding seems unremarkable, and—I would argue—appears to merit a similarly routine conclusion along the lines of Well, yes of course, the authors see the need for policies to combat this trend.


The first clue is the research interests of the lead author, research assistant professor of psychology Amanda Bruce, Ph.D., who specializes in the "neuroimaging of obesity."

And, as the authors write in SCAN, "some experts have cited food marketing as one of the contributors to the recent rise in childhood obesity."

But the most obvious calls for policy changes come from Prof. Bruce herself.

"Ultimately, my down-the-road goal is to see if we can help people improve their self-control and make healthier decisions," Bruce tells the Toronto Star. "Because kids are limited by their underdeveloped brains, however," reports the Star, "that goal would mean asking: 'How moral or ethical is it to advertise to children?'"

The study's conclusions are "concerning, because the majority of foods marketed to children are unhealthy, calorifically dense foods high in sugars, fat and sodium," Bruce tells L.A. Times business writer David Lazarus, who took the handoff from Bruce and kept running in the same direction.

"Does that mean we should have curbs on junk-food ads, just as there are limits for cigarette and alcohol ads?" Lazarus asks. "I say yes. But I'll save the free-speech debate for another day."

While I don't find the SCAN study itself concerning—again, I think it would be stunning if the typical 12-year-old's brain showed more response to a BMW or FedEx logo than to a McDonald's logo—it's probably no surprise that I do find these policy implications inapt. And unlike Lazarus, I won't save the First Amendment implications of the policy he suggests for another day. They're unconstitutional.

Interestingly, some research that would appear to counter arguments about the particular nefariousness of food advertising and logos comes from a 2010 study by some of the same authors as the SCAN study (including lead author Bruce).

That research, published in the International Journal of Obesity, found that obese children are "hyper-responsive to food stimuli as compared with [healthy weight] children." It also concludes "that many areas implicated in normal food motivation are hyper-responsive in obese groups."

In other words, obese people are probably more likely than is the average person to respond to food imagery writ large—from McDonald's logos to unbranded cheeseburger photos, and from Gogurt ads to Pinterest donut porn.

So it's not food logos (or ads) that's the problem. Kids eat what their families feed them. In spite of the arguments of Bruce, Lazarus, and others, policy change in this area should begin—and end—at home.