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Fast Food Advertising In America: The Direct Link to Rising Childhood Obesity
It is definitely not news that a high number of American children are obese, but new research shows that the real cause of this obesity is the toxic food environment that we live in. According to Kelly, Brownell, PhD., co-founder and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, the problem is not people’s lack of self-control for their obesity, but the “strips of fast-food restaurants, the barrage of burger advertising, and the rows of candies and snacks at the checkout counter at any given convenience store” (Murray 33). Genes and self-control also play a role in obesity, but both face a losing battle in the mass propaganda of fast food. Children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic food environment where the bombardment of fast food ads and their exposure to unhealthy food is overwhelming. In the past 30 years, fast food advertising has contributed to the rising rates of childhood obesity in America.
American children today watch an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 television commercials per year, and the fast food industry spends about $4 billion on advertising to children annually (Shah 2). The marketing seems to be paying off. American children spend around $18 billion a year on fast food. Despite industry efforts to reduce marketing aimed at kids, researchers from the Rudd Center at Yale University found that in 2009, preschoolers saw 56% more ads than in 2007, and children age 6-11 saw 59% more ads (Melnick 3). It seems that fast food advertising does get young consumers to buy their products. Fast food ads affect children’s request for certain foods, which can put pressure on parents and instigate conflicts between parents and their children. Forty percent of parents reported that their child asked to go to a fast food restaurant at least once a week and eighty-four percent of them gave in (Melnick 4). The goal of most children’s advertisements is to get kids to nag their parents in order for them to buy what they want. This is called “pester power” (Schlosser 43).
James McNeal, a professor of marketing at Texas A+M University had provided marketers with an analysis of the nagging tactics that children use. The pleading nag is accompanied with words like “please” and “mom, mom, mom”. The persistent nag uses constant requests and the phrase “I’m gonna ask just one more time”. Forceful nags are very pushy and use threats like “Then I’ll go ask dad”. Demonstrative nags include full-blown tantrums in public places and refusals to leave the store. Sugar-coated nags promise love and affection for the purchase of an item, but threatening nags use blackmail and promises of hatred if something is not bought. Finally, the pity nag uses claims that the child will be heart-broken or teased if the item is not bought (Schlosser 44). This marketing research demonstrates that children have enormous purchasing power, both directly and indirectly.
About 30 years ago, only a few American companies, like McDonalds and Disney, directed their marketing at children. But the role of American children has dramatically changed in the past 30 years. Since the 1980s, many working parents have felt guilty about spending less time with their children and started spending more money on them. Today, there is an explosion of advertising aimed at children from restaurant chains, fast food chains, clothing stores, and even phone and oil companies. Fast food companies have also increased their online advertising to children. Banner ads for fast food on websites for Nickelodeon and Disney attract “tens of millions of children per month” states Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of Rudd. Researchers at Rudd also found that children were being exposed to ads through adult television shows like American Idol or televised sports events. They call this “second hand exposure” (Melnick 4). According to Dan Cook, assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois, children’s advertising works because it lives off deeply-held beliefs about self-expression and freedom of choice.
One of the main reasons for the growth in children’s advertising is that companies want to increase not only current, but also future consumption of their product. Today’s market researchers go to the extreme trying to attract children as consumers. They analyze kid’s artwork, run focus groups, and stage slumber parties so they can question children through the night (Schlosser 44). Major ad agencies today have a children’s division and many marketing firms and research firms that focus solely on kids. Market researchers even send cultural anthropologists into homes, stores, and restaurants so they can observe the behavior of future customers (Schlosser 44). Companies have come to realize that a person’s “brand loyalty” starts very early in age and children often recognize a brand name like McDonald’s before recognizing their own name. “Hoping that nostalgic childhood memories of a brand will lead to a lifetime of purchases, companies now plan ‘cradle-to-grave’ advertising strategies” (Schlosser 43).
The Internet is another powerful tool for fast food ads to gather data about children. A federal investigation in 1998 of websites aimed at kids found that about 89% requested personal information and only 1% asked children to get a parent’s approval (Schlosser 45). At the McDonald’s web site a character encouraged kids to email Ronald personal information about themselves, even their name. Today, fast food websites can no longer ask children for information about themselves without parental approval thanks to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act which was passed in April of 2000.
A growing body of research finds that there is evidence that exposure to food advertising is directly linked to the increasing rates of obesity among children today. In 2011, new research from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that television ads for fast food do make children hungrier for those foods. The research was led by Emma Boyland of the University of Liverpool, England, which tested 6 to 13 year olds with DVD’s featuring commercials for toys. This study shows that children who watched more than 20 hours per week of television want more, and eat more fast food and junk food after seeing ads for them (Norton 2). “This study confirms the cumulative, sustained effect of food marketing on TV: the more children watch TV, the more susceptible they are to advertising,” states Lori Dorfman, director of Berkley Media Studies Group in California. Dorfman suggests that parents limit TV watching for their kids but added, “It’s simply not fair to expect parents alone to counter the $2 billion food companies spend each year targeting their kids with fun, irresistible ads for sugary, high-fat, salty foods” (Norton 2).
Another study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the amount of television that is watched is significantly linked to the caloric intake and the request of a specific food children saw advertised. The American Psychological Association found that children under the age of eight are “unable to critically comprehend televised advertising messages (Shah 3). According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, children were likely to believe that television advertisements were telling the truth, and in turn influenced their food choices (Brown 3). “It seems that fast food advertising is contributing to major changes in eating habits leading to concerns of obesity epidemics in the U.S” (Shah 1). Eating fast food is also becoming routine and no longer a special event. It is becoming so ingrained in our culture that one-third of American children eat fast food one a week (Melnick 2). According to Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center, constant exposure to fast food will normalize the kind of eating behavior associated with these fast food restaurants. She believes this trend can be reversed by legislative action to ban advertisements aimed at kids.
The advertising and restaurant industries oppose any kind of ban. They argue that it is their right to commercial free speech protected by the First Amendment, and they should be allowed to advertise their products in a free market without regulations (Mello 2). These industries also claim that food advertising is a necessary revenue. Without fast food ads, TV networks could not afford children’s programming (Mello 1). The fast food industry also argues that there are multiple factors that contribute to obesity such as the role of parents moderating their children’s food consumption, genetics, and a sedentary lifestyle (Hoek and Gendall 410). Finally, advertisers claim that advertising only changes brand preferences, not overall food consumption (Hoek and Gendall 410). There is less likelihood now that the Supreme Court will challenge marketing regulation because “24 states have passed liability-clearing laws which prevent individuals from suing fast food companies claiming damages based on consumption of their foods” (Mello 2). Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center, believes that broad-scale policies banning ads aimed at kids is the real path to doing something constructive about this problem. She wants the food industry accountable for wrongfully manipulation children’s food choices. Public education about nutrition, the content of fast food, and maintaining an active lifestyle could change the way Americans view obesity, she adds.
In conclusion, reviews of major research studies show evidence that there is a link between fast food advertising and childhood obesity. Food advertised to children has one goal – to start “brand affinity” at an early age so they’ll have not only a new generation of consumers, but a new generation of parents that have grown up with built-in connections to companies like McDonalds (Melnick 3). Food advertising has also played a role in changing the behavior pattern of children so that eating fast food frequently is seen as routine and normal. TV advertising influences children’s food preferences which lead to an unhealthy diet. Constant exposure to fast food ads makes kids more hungry for those foods which has serious consequences on their health and well-being. Fast food companies have also increased their online advertising to children and marketers are going to extremes trying to attract children as consumers. This is creating a “toxic food environment” where children are particularly vulnerable. Many experts believe that a shift in public attitude towards obesity and legislative action to stop advertisements aimed at kids is the only effective way to decrease childhood obesity (Melnick 3).
Brown, Kelly. Ashton, David. “Childhood Obesity.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Hoek, Janet. Gendall, Phillip. “Advertiseing and Obesity: A Behavioral Perspective.” Journal of Health Communication. November 2006:409-423.
Mello, Michelle, et al. “The McLawsuit: The Fast-Food Industry and Legal Accountability For Obesity.” Health Affairs. November 2003.
Melnick, Meredith. “Study: Fast-Food Ads Target Kids with Unhealthy Food, and It Works.” Time 8 November 2010.
Murray, Bridget. “Fast-food Culture serves up super-size Americans.” American Psychological Association December 2001: 33-34
Norton, Amy. “TV Junk-Food Ads Do Boost Kid’s Appetites: Study.” Reuters Health. 27, June 2011.
Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001. Print. Shah, Anup. Global Issues. November 21, 2010.