In my opinion, the best part of a children’s meal at a fast-food establishment is often the toy or prize that comes with the meal (assuming it’s not small enough to be a choking hazard if given inappropriately to a younger child). These prizes are known as “meal premiums” and are often excellent enticements. After all, wouldn’t you want a toy from the latest Disney show?
You may not know it from looking at fast-food advertisements that are aired during children’s shows, but there are industry guidelines about how fast-food companies advertise to young children. These guidelines, which the fast-food industry developed for themselves, state that the advertisements have to focus on the meal, and the advertising of the meal premium should be “clearly secondary.”
Dr. Jennifer Emond and her colleagues at Dartmouth and Northeastern University investigated whether fast-food advertisements were adherent to these guidelines. Their report, “Promotion of Meal Premiums in Child-Directed TV Advertising for Children’s Fast-Food Meals,” is being early released this week by Pediatrics. (10.1542/peds.2020-042994)
The authors examined fast-food TV advertisements on national networks that were targeted to young children. They looked at the proportion of spoken words related to food vs. premiums, the proportion of the advertisement in which the food or premiums were displayed on screen, and the relative size of the food or premiums displayed on screen.
What did they find? The advertisements broke the rules in all of the categories! However, before you start writing complaint letters to all of your favorite fast-food restaurants, you should know that one company, McDonald’s, accounted for 99.8% of the advertisement airtime!
Why is this study important? We all know that fast-food consumption contributes to obesity. Children are easily swayed by the meal premiums – they prefer fast-food meals that have toys. The fast-food companies know this as well, which is why the fast-food industry developed these guidelines. Now, if they would only listen and in turn market accordingly to their own rules!