According to a new survey by researchers at Yale University, 84 percent of parents say their kids have eaten from a fast-food restaurant in the last week. Surprising? It shouldn't be. Not when you consider how much money the fast-food industry is spending to ensure that America's kids dine with them.
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 the researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale say the industry isn't living up to these promises. According to the findings, the average preschooler sees about three fast-food ads a day.
Jennifer Harris and her team at Yale used data from The Nielsen Company and Arbitron Inc. to analyze ads aired by 12 chains, including Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC, Subway, Dunkin' Donuts 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. (See the numbers here.)
How did they differentiate ads targeted to kids from those targeted to adults? Characteristics of kids' ads include fun messages, movie tie-ins, kids’ meal promotions and licensed characters. McDonald’s advertises to children as young as age 2. It even has a website for preschoolers called Ronald.com.
All of these marketing dollars translate into pint-sized customers. 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."
McDonald's and Burger King both say they're honoring their marketing promises.
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.