Fast Food FACTS in Brief
Fast food marketing is relentless.
- The fast food industry spent more than $4.2 billion dollars in 2009 on TV advertising and other media.
- The average preschooler (2-5 years) saw 2.8 TV ads per day for fast food; children (6-11 years) saw 3.5; and teens (12-17 years) saw 4.7.
- Young people's exposure to fast food TV ads has increased. Compared to 2003, preschoolers viewed 21% more fast food ads in 2009, children viewed 34% more, and teens viewed 39% more.
- Although McDonald's and Burger King have pledged to improve food marketing to children, they increased their volume of TV advertising from 2007 to 2009. Preschoolers saw 21% more ads for McDonald's and 9% more for Burger King, and children viewed 26% more ads for McDonald's and 10% more for Burger King.
- Even though McDonald's and Burger King only showed their "better-for-you" foods in child-targeted marketing, their ads did not encourage consumption of these healthier choices. Instead, child-targeted ads focused on toy giveaways and building brand loyalty.
- Children saw more than child-targeted ads. More than 60% of fast food ads viewed by preschoolers and children promoted fast food items other than kids' meals.
Youth-targeted marketing has spread to company websites and other digital media.
- McDonald's web-based marketing starts with children as young as age 2 at Ronald.com.
- McDonald's and Burger King created sophisticated websites with advergames and virtual worlds to engage children (e.g., McWorld.com, HappyMeal.com, and ClubBK.com).
- McDonald's 13 websites got 365,000 unique child visitors and 294,000 unique teen visitors on average each month in 2009.
- Nine restaurant Facebook pages had more than one million fans in 2009, and Starbucks' boasted more than 11.3 million.
- Smartphone apps were available for eight fast food chains, providing another opportunity to reach young consumers anytime, anywhere.
Fast food marketing also targets teens and ethnic and minority youth - often with less healthy items.
- Taco Bell targeted teens in its TV and radio advertising. Dairy Queen, Sonic, and Domino's also reached disproportionately more teens with ads for their desserts and snacks, and Burger King advertised teen-targeted promotions.
- Hispanic preschoolers saw 290 Spanish-language fast food TV ads in 2009 and McDonald's was responsible for one-quarter of young people's exposure to Spanish-language fast food advertising.
- African American children and teens saw at least 50% more fast food ads on TV in 2009 than their white peers. That translated into twice the number of fast food calories viewed daily compared to white children.
- McDonald's and KFC specifically targeted African American youth with TV advertising, targeted websites, and banner ads.
Fast food marketing works.
- Eighty-four percent of parents reported taking their child to a fast food restaurant at least once a week; 66% reported going to McDonald's in the past week.
- Forty percent of parents reported that their child asks to go to McDonald's at least once a week; 15% of preschoolers ask to go every day.
Most restaurants do offer some healthful and lower-calorie choices on their regular and children's menus, but unhealthy options are the default.
- Just 12 of 3,039 possible kids' meal combinations met nutrition criteria for preschoolers; 15 met nutrition criteria for older children.
- Just 17% of regular menu items qualified as healthy choices.
- Snacks and dessert items contained as many as 1,500 calories, which is five times more than the 200 to 300 calorie snack for active teens recommended by the American Dietetic Association.
- The average restaurant had 15 signs promoting specific menu items, but just 4% promoted healthy menu items.
- When ordering a kids' meal, restaurant employees at McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Taco Bell automatically served french fries or another unhealthy side dish more than 84% of the time. A soft drink or other unhealthy beverage was served automatically at least 55% of the time.
- Subway offered healthy sides and beverages 60% of the time, making it the only fast food restaurant in our study to routinely provide healthy choices.
As a result:
- Teens between the ages of 13 and 18 purchased 800 to 1,100 calories in an average fast food visit.
- At least 30% of calories in menu items purchased by children and teens were from sugar and saturated fat.
- At most restaurants, young people purchased at least half of their maximum daily recommended sodium intake in just one fast food meal.
- Teens ordered more fast food than any other age group during non-meal times after school and in the evening.
Young people must consume less of the calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods served at fast food restaurants. Parents and schools can and should do more to teach children how to make healthy choices. Above all, fast food restaurants must drastically change their current marketing practices so that children and teens do not receive continuous encouragement to seek out food that will severely damage their health.
Fast food restaurants must establish meaningful standards for child-targeted marketing that apply to all fast food restaurants-not just those who voluntarily participate in the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.
- Nutrition criteria for foods presented in child-targeted marketing must apply to all kids' meals served, not just items pictured in the marketing.
- Restaurants must redefine "child-targeted" marketing to include TV ads and other forms of marketing viewed by large numbers of children but not exclusively targeted to them.
- McDonald's must stop marketing directly to preschoolers.
Fast food restaurants must do more to develop and promote lower-calorie and more nutritious menu items.