RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
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Kids who've eaten at a fast food restaurant in the last seven days, have plenty of company. A new survey by researchers at Yale, finds 84 percent of parents say their kids have, and that may be due to the fact that kids today are seeing more McDonald's and Burger King ads than ever before. As NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, these are the same companies that have pledged to market healthier choices to children.
ALLISON AUBREY: The fast food industry spent more than $4.2 billion last year getting kids and adults attention with catchy ads like this one.
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Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Give me back that filet-o-fish. Give me that fish. What if it were you hanging up on this wall?
AUBREY: College student Jamie Driscoll remembers it well. In fact, he couldn't stop singing it.
Mr. JAMIE DRISCOLL: (Singing) Give me back that filet-o-fish. Give me that fish. Oh.
AUBREY: You really remember it.
Mr. DRISCOLL: I do. We were singing it a lot in the shop.
AUBREY: The shop where he works part time. Driscoll says the ad didn't really whet his appetite for fried fish. But he grew up longing for trips to McDonald's. He's still got some coveted Looney Tune Happy Meal toys, circa second grade, tucked away in his dresser. And these days it's the return of the pork-flavored McRib sandwich that's leading him back. He remembers the ad from the last time McDonald's reintroduced it, back when he was in middle school.
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Unidentified Man #2: It's back. And you can't resist a McRib extra value meal. Did somebody say McDonald's?
AUBREY: McDonald's more recent tagline is, I'm loving it. But researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University say there's a lot not to love about the way the fast food industry markets its food to families.
Using Nielsen data, researcher Jennifer Harris analyzed ads aired by 12 chains, including Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC and McDonald's. And she found kids are seeing more advertising than ever, up almost 34 percent compared to 2003.
In 2006, industry leaders including McDonald's and Burger King entered into a voluntary agreement to limit the marketing of unhealthy food to kids. They pledged to devote at least 50 percent of ads directed to kids to�choices that are considered better for you.
But Harris says the companies have not lived up to the spirit of the agreement. In the case of McDonald's, she says apple dippers and milk are featured in the ads.
Ms. JENNIFER HARRIS: The problem is that those foods, if they're pictured at all in the ads, are pictured in the background. And so that's one problem. The other issue is that when a parent goes into McDonald's or Burger King to buy a kid's meal, more than 80 percent of the time they're given the french fries automatically. They aren't even offered the healthier choices.
AUBREY: Harris knows this, because as part of the research, she and her team sent shoppers into a few hundred fast food restaurants around the country to track how often healthy sides were offered.
McDonald's and Burger King both say they're honoring their marketing promises. Since 2008, McDonald's says U.S. customers have purchased more than 100 million Happy Meals with apple dippers. And Burger King says, in their kids ads they only feature meals that have no more than 560 calories and less than 30 percent of calories from fat.
But that's the nutritional content of a kid's meal. Yale's Jennifer Harris says by the time children reach middle school, they're ordering up to 1,400-calorie meals off the main menu - numbers that surprise most parents.
Ms. HARRIS: So one thing we've done is set up a website where parents can go in and research the items that they usually buy at fast food restaurants.
AUBREY: The site also suggests healthier fast food combos that parents may have never considered.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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