Aggressive advertising by fast-food companies has taught 15% of preschoolers to ask to go to McDonald's every day, and convinced teens it's OK to consume as many as 1,100 calories in a single meal, says a sharply critical study of the industry's marketing tactics from Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.
Fast-food marketing to children as young as 2 was so effective in 2009 that two-fifths of U.S. children younger than 11 ask their parents to go to McDonald's at least once a week, says the study -- and 84% of parents admit to obliging.
Minority kids are disproportionately targeted by the ads, with McDonald's and KFC taking the lead in targeting African-American youth with TV advertising, dedicated websites, and banner ads. Such ads feature foods that contain twice as many calories as ads aimed at white children, and African-American children see at least 50% more fast-food ads than their white peers, the study said.
Even when advertising features adult-targeted teasers -- what the report calls "secondhand exposure to ads" -- it's so successful that almost a third of children old enough to choose their meal (ages 6-11) ask for regular-sized combo meals rather than kid-sized versions.
Fast-food combo meals contain more than half of young people's daily recommended sodium intake and about half their total daily calories, 30% of which come from sugar and saturated fat, the report said.
McDonald's and Burger King lead the pack in promoting unhealthy eating behaviors when they automatically serve French fries with meals 84% of the time, and soft drinks at least 55% of the time, though in child-targeted ads only healthy side orders and beverages are shown, the report said.
Wendy's and Taco Bell also push unhealthy sides, though they too have at least one healthy side dish and beverage option, the study found.
"Despite pledges to improve their marketing practices, fast food companies seem to be stepping up their efforts to target kids," said Jennifer Harris, the lead study author, in a statement. Harris noted that preschoolers today see 21% more fast food ads on TV than they did in 2003. Somewhat older children see 34% more.
The report examined the marketing efforts of 12 of the nation's largest fast food chains and tallied the calories, fat, sugar and sodium in more than 3,000 kids' meals combinations and 2,781 single menu items. The results revealed that out of these, only 12 kids' meals met nutrition criteria for preschoolers, and only 15 for older children.
McDonald's is also responsible for one-quarter of all Spanish-language fast food ads, meaning the average Hispanic preschooler sees 290 ads per year. Taco Bell, Domino's, Dairy Queen and Sonic specifically go after teens, mostly with ads for calorie-laden desserts and snacks.
Subway was the sole exception to the trend, offering youngsters healthy sides and beverages 60% of the time.
The worst kids' meal combinations were Dairy Queen's Original Cheeseburger with a side of French fries and a Chocolate Dilly Bar (973 calories), trailed by McDonald's Double Cheeseburger with French fries and Hi-C Orange Lavaburst drink (830 calories) and KFC's Popcorn chicken with potato wedges and a side of string cheese (820 calories and a whopping 1, 820 mg of sodium).
Here is a full list of the best- and worst-ranked kids' meals. According to the report, the fast food industry spent more than $4.2 billion in 2009 on marketing.
Fast-food marketing has brainwashed kids and targets minorities, says study