Imagine you are five years old, sitting at the kitchen table. Right in front of you is one of your all-time favorites: a McDonald’s Happy Meal. And while you can’t wait to bite into your crispy chicken nuggets, you are even more excited to see what toy is inside.
Fast food companies intentionally feature these “premiums” (e.g., toys and games) in their TV ads to capture children’s attention. Children perceive meals with premiums as better tasting and are more likely to ask for them. The more fast food children consume, the greater their risk for excess weight gain and obesity.
The non-profit organization BBB National Programs administers self-regulatory guidelines to address the content of children’s advertising. The guidelines stipulate that advertisers must focus children’s attention on the food product and “make the premium message clearly secondary.” But does this happen in practice? Jennifer Emond and colleagues analyzed all child-directed fast-food TV ads on four national networks that aired from February 2019 through January 2020. They timed how long the premium, food product, and restaurant logo were displayed on screen. The team also counted how many words in the advertisement were associated with each of the three categories.
The graphs show that premiums were on screen longer and talked about more than both food and the restaurant brand. On average, premiums accounted for 53% of all words spoken in the advertisements. Premiums were also on screen for nearly 60% of the total airtime. When food and premiums were displayed at the same time, the premiums took up nearly twice as much of the total on-screen area.
Self-regulatory guidelines are failing, as premiums take precedence over food. Even if premiums were eliminated from advertisements, that is only part of the solution. Children continue to consume hundreds of ads every year from brands that market unhealthy fast foods. Happy Meal toys have taken center stage, while childhood obesity prevention efforts are too often left off screen.
Emond J, Utter H, Eschholz A, Chang V, Gottlieb M, Sargent J. Promotion of Meal Premiums in Child-Directed TV Advertising for Children’s Fast-food Meals. Pediatrics, Jun 2021.