Research Article: How Television Fast Food Marketing Aimed at Children Compares with Adult Advertisements

Date Published: August 28, 2013

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Amy M. Bernhardt, Cara Wilking, Anna M. Adachi-Mejia, Elaina Bergamini, Jill Marijnissen, James D. Sargent, Amanda Bruce.


Quick service restaurant (QSR) television advertisements for children’s meals were compared with adult advertisements from the same companies to assess whether self-regulatory pledges for food advertisements to children had been implemented.

All nationally televised advertisements for the top 25 US QSR restaurants from July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010 were obtained and viewed to identify those advertising meals for children and these advertisements were compared with adult advertisements from the same companies. Content coding included visual and audio assessment of branding, toy premiums, movie tie-ins, and depictions of food. For image size comparisons, the diagonal length of the advertisement was compared with the diagonal length of salient food and drink images.

Almost all of the 92 QSR children’s meal advertisements that aired during the study period were attributable to McDonald’s (70%) or Burger King (29%); 79% of 25,000 television placements aired on just four channels (Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney XD, and Nicktoons). Visual branding was more common in children’s advertisements vs. adult advertisements, with food packaging present in 88% vs. 23%, and street view of the QSR restaurant present in 41% vs. 12%. Toy premiums or giveaways were present in 69% vs. 1%, and movie tie-ins present in 55% vs. 14% of children’s vs. adult advertisements. Median food image diagonal length was 20% of the advertisement diagonal for children’s and 45% for adult advertisements. The audio script for children’s advertisements emphasized giveaways and movie tie-ins whereas adult advertisements emphasized food taste, price and portion size.

Children’s QSR advertisements emphasized toy giveaways and movie tie-ins rather than food products. Self-regulatory pledges to focus on actual food products instead of toy premiums were not supported by this analysis.

Partial Text

Global food companies have an influential impact on public health, [1] and the enormous resources they direct toward marketing and branding of unhealthy foods [2] has generated scrutiny of how food is marketed to children. [3] Fast food consumed by children away from home in quick service restaurants (QSRs) is of particular concern, as it is linked to increased calorie intake [4] and decreased diet quality. [5] Further, increases in the proportion of calories consumed away from home corresponds with the onset of widespread obesity in the population. [5] Finally, higher consumption of fast food has been linked with larger increases in body mass index over time [6].

We obtained the television advertisements for the top 25 quick service restaurants for 2008 named in Quick Service Magazine and based on 2008 system-wide sales in the United States. Advertisements were purchased from an ad agency which monitors all cable and network television. We identified any QSR television ad placement that aired during a 1 year period (July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010) on national television (N = 1135). All advertisements were reviewed to determine if the product being marketed was a “children’s meal” specifically packaged for children (e.g., the McDonald’s Happy Meal). Unique advertisements were identified by content and length. Some of the 30-second children’s advertisements contained two distinctly themed 15-second segments back-to-back. Despite the incongruent content, these advertisements were treated as one unique 30-second ad because that is how they were aired.

This contemporary examination of QSR television advertising for the top 25 restaurants found that almost all children’s advertisements airing nationally in the U.S. were attributable to just two companies–McDonald’s and Burger King. These companies marketed children’s meals predominantly on four channels, including Nickelodeon which has been previously shown to primarily advertise foods of poor nutritional value. [21] Whereas adult television advertisements from these QSR companies emphasized the taste, portion size and price of food products, children’s advertisements emphasized toy premiums and movie tie-ins, brands and logos. Children’s advertisements also emphasized the street view of the restaurant, which may help children to recognize it as they drive by with their parents. The clear emphasis in child QSR advertisements on toy premiums and movie tie-ins suggests that during the study period, CARU and CFBAI self-regulatory pledges were associated with little advertising emphasis on actual food products sold to children. Moreover, the children’s advertisements emphasized techniques that the companies’ self-regulatory body has identified as potentially misleading. Our findings are consistent with the experience of Australia, where food companies have failed to live up to self-regulatory standards there [22].