Fast Food Ads For Kids Up Despite Industry Vow

Researchers from Yale University found that kids are seeing more fast food ads than ever before.

Researchers from Yale University found that kids are seeing more fast food ads than ever before. Jonathan Barnes/iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption Jonathan Barnes/iStockphoto.com

If your kids have eaten at a fast food restaurant in the past seven days, you're in good company. According to a new survey by researchers at Yale University, 84 percent of parents say their kids have, too.

Part of the demand you hear from the back seat may be due to the fact that kids today are seeing more McDonald's and Burger King ads than ever before.

The average preschooler sees about three ads a day, according to the findings. Teenagers see about five per day.

While companies selling sugary cereals and drinks have reduced the number of TV ads kids see in the past few years, the fast food industry moved in the other direction, says Jennifer Harris of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale.

Fast Food Math

Along with its survey on marketing, the Rudd Center has released a Web-based meal calculator for parents that includes popular offerings from various fast food chains. Parents can input their child's age, sex, activity level and favorite fast food meal and find out how it measures up nutrition-wise with guidelines for health. Consider this potential meal for a 5-year-old girl who exercises 30 minutes to an hour a day: A McDonald's kid's menu hamburger with small fries and a kid-size Hi-C Orange Lavaburst drink will give her a whopping 134 percent of the calories, 100 percent of the saturated fat, 125 percent of the sodium and 543 percent of the added sugar she should be getting in a single meal.

Researchers have also built a table with the best and worst combinations for kids from several fast food restaurants. The healthiest meal they studied is a Subway Veggie Delight sandwich on wheat bread with no cheese, a bag of apple slices, and a box of 100 percent juice. This combination contains 285 calories, 295 mg of sodium and no fat. Less healthy but perhaps favored by kids is the Burger King cheeseburger with fries and Dr. Pepper. That meal contains 635 calories, 1,106 mg of sodium and 9 grams of fat.

The table also shows that some chains feature more healthy side dishes than others. While Dairy Queen gives kids free ice cream with their meal, some chains — including Wendy's and Sonic — have added fruits and vegetables like sliced apples and Mandarin orange cups to their menus. But, as the Rudd Center notes, overall, french fries still rule and remain the default side dish almost everywhere.

— Whitney Blair Wyckoff

"The fast food industry has stepped up their marketing efforts," Harris says.

Using data from The Nielsen Company and Arbitron Inc., Harris and her colleagues analyzed ads aired by 12 chains, including Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC and McDonald's. She found that preschoolers are seeing 21 percent more ads for fast food, and older children are seeing 34 percent more — compared with 2003.

"The numbers are pretty amazing," Harris says.

In 2006, industry leaders including McDonald's and Burger King entered into a voluntary agreement initiated by the Better Business Bureau to limit the marketing of unhealthy food to kids. They pledged to devote at least 50 percent of ads directed at kids to choices that are considered "better for you."

But Harris says the companies have not lived up to the spirit of the agreement.

As part of the study, Harris and her colleagues sent shoppers into a few hundred fast food restaurants to track how often healthy sides were offered when parents ordered kids' meals.

"About 80 percent of the time they were given the french fries — automatically," Harris says. "They were not even offered the healthier choices."

Harris says apple dippers and milk may be featured in McDonald's Happy Meal ads, but they're often pictured in the background.

McDonald's and Burger King both say they're honoring their marketing promises.

McDonald's Chief Marketing Officer Neil Golden says "100 percent" of the company's children's ads in the U.S. include "dietary choices that fit within the 2005 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans."

Since 2008, U.S. customers have purchased more than 100 million Happy Meals with apple dippers, McDonald's says. And Burger King says its Kids Meal ads only feature combinations that have no more than 560 calories — and less than 30 percent of those calories from fat

If kids stuck to the kids' meals, obesity experts say, the calorie count wouldn't be alarming.

But the Rudd Center study finds that teens move on to the regular menu — and purchase meals that have as much as 1,100 calories. That's roughly half of their recommended total daily calories.

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