Advertisements for fast food chains have been blasted as 'deceptive by industry standards' by a team of researchers from the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center that found a significant number of surveyed children were unable to identify healthy foods in the ad spots.
Children between the ages of three and seven were asked to name the foods that appeared in a range of ads aired on networks such as Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network, intended to target kids directly. However, the packaging and presentation of healthy foods proved confusing for most of the children, with fast food retailers designing the healthier products to mimic the look of their standard range.
For example, Burger King sells 'Fresh Apple Fries' in a box that looks the same as a french fry box, albeit with a small graphic of an apple on the front. Of the children surveyed, only half were able to recognize milk as it was shown in the ads, and just 10 percent were able to differentiate between a box of the apple slices and a box of potato fries.
"Burger King's depiction of apple slices as 'Fresh Apple Fries' was misleading to children in the target age range. The advertisement would be deceptive by industry standards, yet their self-regulation bodies took no action to address the misleading depiction," said Dr. James Sargent, the study's lead author and co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at Norris Cotton Cancer Center.
The resulting confusion impacted the children's choices. The study also found children developed strong brand loyalty to certain chains, such as McDonalds, due to receiving toys or gifts with their food - as with the Happy Meal.
Children's advertising is subject to self-regulation by the corporations, despite some influence from the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission. As such, guidelines may lead to crossed wires and loopholes for fast food chains, which are required to focus advertising on food rather than toys. Though there is a push for advertising to be yet more focused on the healthy options, it isn't the predominant angle taken by most fast food chains.
The study was published in JAMA Pediatrics.