Nanny State

Proof Requiring Healthy Fast Food Marketing for Kids Is Pointless


Throughout 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.