McDonald's and Burger King are in trouble again for what they're selling to kids—but this time it isn't the food. In fact, precisely the opposite: They're selling them everything but the food.
A new study published in the scientific journal Plos One found that fast-food ads aimed at kids tend to promote food packaging, toys or movie tie-ins far more than they do the actual food.
"When we first saw the ads, we were shocked," Dr. James Sargent, a professor of pediatrics in Dartmouth College's Geisel School of Medicine told Adweek. "It's hard to tell with the kids' ads what they are marketing; food was an afterthought."
Sargent and five other researchers found huge discrepancies between the ads targeted at kids and adults. The food's packaging was shown in 88 percent of kids ads, compared with 23 percent of adult ads, movie tie-ins were used in promotions with 55 percent of kids but just 14 percent of adult ads, and (least surprising) toys were promoted in 69 percent of kids ads but one percent of adults'.
The research was compiled by examining a year's worth of fast food ads frame by frame between July 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010. A whopping 99 percent of those ads that were targeted at children were from either McDonald's or Burger King.
The problem is that while the chains are holding up their nutritional obligations as part of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative by only advertising healthy food options, those options aren't being shown in a way that kids will recognize them.
"The industry's own guidelines say companies need to be careful with premiums and tie-ins because children aren't capable of fully understanding them," Sargent explained.
That said, the study has drawn criticism as well, notably from the Children's Advertising Review Unit, an ad-industry self-regulatory organization. CARU director Wayne Keeley pointed out that counting frames to determine how much emphasis was put on each aspect of the ad, as the study did, doesn't take everything into account. Keeley said that CARU generally looks at the whole ad and its overall impression, adding that by their standards McDonald's and Burger King have been model participants.
McDonald's also issued a statement pointing out that the data is now three years old and doesn't represent the restaurant's current advertising initiatives.
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