Fast Food Advertising to Children

Can global fast food giants police themselves? Ads emphasize movie tie-ins and toys more than food.

Dr. James Sargent describes how fast food marketing to children focuses on movie tie-ins and toys, not healthy food.

Marketing guidelines suggest that children's fast food advertising focus on healthy foods, not toys. But fast food ads for kids focus on movie characters, giveaways, and company branding more than ads for adults.

Fast food TV commercials aimed at children 2-11 years old did not comply with self-imposed guidelines organized through the Better Business Bureau (BBB) during a one-year study period, according to Dartmouth researchers who recently published their findings, "How Television Fast Food Marketing Aimed at Children Compares with Adult Advertisements," in PLOS ONE.

Fast food advertisements for kids emphasize giveaways, branding, and movie tie-ins

"Fast food chains did not live up to their pledges to use fair and honest advertising to children," said principal investigator Jim Sargent, MD, co-director Cancer Control Program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center. "Instead, the ads focused on toy premiums, movie character tie-ins, and efforts to brand the company, like showing a street view of the restaurant."

Sargent's research team examined TV ads appearing on U.S. cable and network television for the top 25 fast food restaurants from July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010.

Compared to ads for adults, fast food ads for kids focused more on giveaways, less on food

Over the one-year period, two global giants placed 99 percent of the ads: McDonalds (44,062 ads) and Burger King (37,210 ads.) McDonald's targeted 40 percent of its advertisements at young children, compared with 21 percent for Burger King. As a result, McDonalds placed more than two-thirds of all ads for children's fast food. Seventy-nine percent of ads appeared on four cable networks—Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney XD, and Nicktoons. When compared to ads targeting adults, the children's ads featured more cartoon characters, toys, and movie references.

Percent of ads featuring premiums, like toy giveaways


Children's Meal Ads

Adult Ads

Toy Giveaways



Percent of ads with movie tie-ins


Children's Meal Ads

Adult Ads

Blockbuster Tie-Ins



Children's ads also included more visual cues than the adult ads to reinforce a child's ability to recognize a restaurant's corporate logo, symbols, packaging, and even the exterior storefront.

Percent of ads with brand imagery


Children's Meal Ads

Adult Ads

Images of Food Packaging



Street View of Restaurant



"Branding tactics are widely used in fast food advertising aimed at children," said Sargent. "Advertisers use images of toy premiums, music, and movie characters to associate their product with excitement, energy, and fun. They emphasize recognition of the brand, the packaging and the restaurant, with little emphasis on the food products sold there. This heavy dose of branding serves to help a child recognize the storefront of a fast food chain from the backseat and pester their parents to stop for a meal that features the latest superhero."

Earlier research confirms that food advertisements alter eating choices and behaviors, and associating food with animated characters enhances a child's perceived food taste and preference. Research also shows that kids who see these ads eat more fast food.

Guidelines to keep kids advertising focused on healthy foods

While the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission play important regulatory roles in food labeling and marketing, the Better Business Bureau operates a self-regulatory system. Two different programs offer guidelines to keep children's advertising focused on the food, not toys, and, more specifically, on foods with nutritional value.  "The problem is," Sargent said, "many children can't even reliably distinguish commercial advertising from the TV program they are watching.  The advertising misleads children because they lack the ability to understand that they are being sold food, not toys and movies."

The Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) maintains a set of marketing guidelines for promoting foods and other products to children. CARU recommends that ads should focus the child's attention primarily on the product and make the premium secondary.

"Both McDonalds and Burger King promised to adhere to self-regulation guidelines— to de-emphasize misleading toy premiums and movie tie-ins and to emphasize healthier foods." said Cara Wilking, a co-author from the Public Health Advocacy Institute. "How little they emphasized food becomes clear when you compare them with ads aimed at adults from the same companies. For example, food images in the children's ads were, on average, less than half the size of the food images in the adult ads."

Given the percentage of toy premiums and movie tie-ins in the visual and audio elements of the ads, the research team concluded that the companies studied did not follow through with their self-regulatory promises during the study period.

"We hope the study can encourage greater accountability in food advertising to children," said Sargent. "To be effective, I think we need annual evaluations conducted by an agency like the Federal Trade Commission."

The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and conducted by the Cancer Control Research Program at Norris Cotton Cancer Center.

August 29, 2013