Study reveals ‘major limitations’ to fast-food industry self-regulation of advertising to children

Research ​conducted by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and the University of Connecticut published June 17 found the fast food industry spent $5bn in total advertising in 2019 – an increase of more than $400m – resulting in children seeing an average of 2.1 to 2.3 fast-food TV ads per day in 2019.

A significant portion of marketing in 2019 – $318m – went to Spanish-language TV ads, representing a 33% increase from 2012 and resulting in the number of ads viewed by Hispanic preschoolers and children increasing 2% and 7% from 2012 while the ads viewed by preschoolers and children overall fell.

Likewise, Black preschoolers, children and teens viewed 75% more fast-food TV ads than their white counterparts in 2019, representing a significant increase from the 60% more ads viewed by Black youth in 2012, according to the report.

Most of these ads promoted full-calorie regular menu items or the restaurants more broadly, while just 1% of the ads promoted healthier menu items – many of which were added by fast-food chains under public pressure to help children cut sugar, fat, salt and unnecessary calories, revealed the study, which analyzed 2019 Nielsen data for advertising spending and exposure for 275 fast-food restaurants.

“This new study shows that these purchasing patterns mirror the ads children see, with the vast majority of ads viewed by children promoting less healthy and higher portion items on their regular menu,”​ according to the Rudd Center.

“These findings highlight considerable opportunities for improvement in fast-food advertising to youth,”​ the researchers argue in the study.

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