The U.S. fast-food industry has boosted spending on ads targeting kids, especially Black and Hispanic youth, new research shows.
For the study, the researchers analyzed data on ad spending and TV ad exposure for 274 fast-food restaurants and found that annual spending hit $5 billion in 2019, up more than $400 million between 2012 and 2019.
"Fast-food consumption by children and teens has increased over the past decade, and fast-food advertising definitely plays a role in that rise," said study co-author Jennifer Harris. She is senior research advisor for marketing initiatives at the University of Connecticut's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, in Hartford.
In 2019 alone, 2- to 5-year-olds saw an average 830 fast-food TV ads; 6- to 11-year-olds saw 787 ads; and 12- to 17-year-olds saw 775 ads, her team reported.
Just 1% of the ads promoted healthy menu choices. The rest touted full-calorie menu items or the restaurants in general.
Only 10% of the ads kids saw appeared during children's TV programming, and fewer than 10% promoted kids' meals, the researchers found. Many ads touted mobile apps or websites for digital orders.
Ads on both Spanish-language and Black-targeted TV programming increased dramatically over the study period, the findings revealed. Fast-food ad spending on Spanish-language TV rose 33% between 2012 and 2019. In 2019, Black youth saw 75% more fast-food ads than white youth did, up from a 60% difference in 2012.
On both Spanish-language and Black-targeted TV programming, fast-food ads more often featured low-cost, large-portion menu items and meal deals versus other offerings. No healthy menu items at all were advertised on Spanish-language TV, according to the report.
The findings were published June 17 on the center's FACTS website. FACTS is an acronym for Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score.
"Our findings show that these advertisements disproportionately target Black and Hispanic youth, groups who already face greater risk for obesity and other diet-related diseases," Harris said in a university news release.
"Moreover, many fast-food companies tout recent introductions of healthier menu items as evidence of their commitment to improving nutrition, but they rarely promote these items in their advertising," she added.
More than one in three kids eat fast-food on any given day in the United States.
Study co-author Frances Fleming-Milici, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center, said less time in front of TV screens is not protecting kids from fast-food advertising.
"Now more than ever parents need support in raising healthy children, and consistent exposure to ads featuring burgers, fries and pizza sabotages their best efforts," Fleming-Milici said. "Media companies, policymakers and advocates can play a vital role in demanding an end to irresponsible advertising."
The authors called on fast-food companies to limit such marketing voluntarily. Some suggested steps include putting restrictions on advertising of unhealthy foods to kids under age 14, as well as that targeting Hispanic and Black youth.
The American Academy of Pediatrics explains how children develop unhealthy food preferences.
SOURCE: Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, news release, June 17, 2021