Advertising Happy Meals to Children—An Interview with Jim Sargent

The proportion of children with any recall of 1) a premium/tie-in, 2) any food, or 3) healthy food after seeing fast-food television advertising targeted to children, by company (McDonalds, Burger King).

Earlier this month, PLOS One publishedChildren’s Recall of Fast Food Television Advertising—Testing the Adequacy of Food Marketing Regulation”, a report on a study that examined what children recall from fast food television advertisements aired by these companies. Corporations and Health Watch’s Nicholas Freudenberg interviewed one of the authors of the study, James Sargent, a Professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Family and Community Medicine and a researcher at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth University.



CHW: Jim, what led you to conduct this study?


JS: We were studying fast food marketing to adolescents. In studying the ads, we were eliminating the ads aimed at little children. The research associate came to me with the kid’s ads and said, “These are interesting and we should study them.” When we started looking at them and comparing to the ads aimed at adolescents and adults, it was clear that they were very different, in that the food was greatly de-emphasized in the kids’ meal ads, which were instead emphasizing toy premiums and restaurant experience. We published that content analysis, but the study was criticized by the Better Business Bureau, who said they don’t assess the ads themselves, only how children in the target audience respond to them. The present study was conducted in order to assess how children in the target audience respond to the ads.


CHW: Why do you think it is important for health researchers to study the impact of food advertising to children?


JS: I think there has been too much emphasis on the nutritional content of the children’s food ads and not enough emphasis on the fact that corporations are marketing to children as young as 3 years–kids who not only don’t understand they are being sold to, but don’t even distinguish advertising “stories” from the stories depicted in the shows they are watching. That seems highly unethical to me.


CHW: What are your main findings and why are they important?


JS: There are three important findings. First, and most people don’t know this, at the time of this study, out of the 20 top fast food restaurants, only two, Burger King and McDonald’s, were marketing to young children on children’s commercial television networks. Since we did the study, Burger King has quit advertising on these channels. Clearly, someone at Burger King decided that marketing to kids on TV and through the internet was not in their best interests (they also shut down their website aimed at kids). Good for Burger King! Now McDonald’s is the only big fast food player pitching to kids on channels like Nickelodeon (there is also a minor player, Chuck E Cheese). That makes McDonald’s the Philip Morris of fast foods.


The next two findings have to be interpreted in the context of self-regulation of these ads by the Better Business Bureau (BBB). The self-regulation guidelines address deception and premiums, stating, “[s]ince children have difficulty distinguishing product from premium, advertising that contains a premium message should focus the child’s attention primarily on the product and make the premium message clearly secondary.” This is basically saying that it is deceptive to place too much emphasis on the toy premium, and I agree with this guideline. Our data indicate that children are a little more likely to notice the premiums in children’s ads than to pay attention to the food itself. So these ads clearly violate the industry’s own guidelines on deception–they are deceptive.


The second self-regulatory program, also run by the BBB, aims to present healthy foods, which in the case of these ads was apples and milk. Even though these two food items appeared in all the ads, children mentioned the healthy items less than ten percent of the time. We concluded that the companies did not place adequate emphasis on depicting healthy foods as they had promised to.


CHW: What are the policy implications of your study for rules for food advertising to children?


JS: The policy implication is the suggestion that the BBB is not adequately policing children’s food advertising. We offer an oversight paradigm in which ads from a certain period would be randomly assigned to children in the target audience, who would be asked what they saw in the ads. The results could be used to monitor the advertising and issue sanctions based on whether the ads actually live up to self-regulation standards. This should be an ongoing program run by an independent government agency like the Federal Trade Commission, because clearly the current system of self-regulation isn’t working.


This doesn’t address the issue that advertising to children in this age range in inherently unfair and unethical. As a society, we need to protect young children from advertising until they are old enough to understand they are being sold to and capable of being skeptical of the message. I see this as the 21st century equivalent to the passage of child labor laws that happened in the last century.


CHW: What’s next on your research plate on this topic?


JS: We want to see how children respond when we work with parents to transition them from commercial TV to a noncommercial option, like Netflix for Kids. We think parents will love it because their kids will quit nagging them for toys and unhealthy food.


CHW: Thanks, Jim. I look forward to seeing the results of expanding non-commercial options for children’s television.