Thursday, April 03, 2014

Advertising fast food to children

Leading fast food companies have pledged to follow specific advertising guidelines under the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a project of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (BBB).

These voluntary pledges remain quite weak. One recent summary of the argument that these pledges are insufficient [note: slight edit for clarity Apr 5] comes from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. The companies describe the pledges in shorthand, saying loosely that they now advertise only healthy food to children. In truth, more precisely, the companies still advertise both unhealthy and healthy food choices to children.

For example, a company pledge may claim to show only children's meals with comparatively healthy sides and beverages (such as apple slices and milk) and not less healthy options (such as french fries and sugary soda). Even with no further deception, the advertisements for the healthy meals help build brand awareness with children, increasing probability of generating a purchase occasion. Once the child and guardian are in the restaurant, the company heavily markets apple slices and french fries, milk and soda, whatever it takes to make the sale. The CFBAI guidelines address advertising on television and the web and do not prevent marketing of unhealthy options at the point of purchase, so the unhealthy options remain a large fraction of actual revenues for children's meals.

And, in any case, there is further deception. New research supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation finds that most children who view Burger King advertisements showing apple slices think the advertisement is showing french fries. The apple slices look like french fries, and the children overlook a small apple symbol on the package.

I do not believe the confusion is accidental. Reason Magazine's Hit and Run blog credulously accepts an account in which the children's misunderstanding merely shows that Burger King is effectively marketing apples by presenting them in an "apple fries" format, but that sounds like spin to me.

You can judge for yourself. Here is the actual video from the research team, led by James Sargent, MD, co-director Cancer Control Research Program at Norris Cotton Cancer Center. Ask yourself, is Burger King advertising only apples (as the company's CFBAI pledge claims), or is Burger King also in practice advertising french fries to children (in which case the company's CFBAI pledge is dishonest)?

I'm enough of an economist that a fast food company's marketing fails to outrage me. I expect Burger King to market burgers and fries as vigorously as it can, subject to the dual limitations of government rules and social norms. What bothers me instead is that organizations that purport to be independent referees serving the public interest -- such as CFBAI -- pretend that the fast food companies really have voluntarily ended their advertising of unhealthy food to children. It is admirable to seek market-oriented business-friendly solutions to social problems, but let's not deceive ourselves by claiming that marketing unhealthy food to children is a problem we already have under control.

1 comment:

Asta Garmon said...

This was a great post and provided me with some food for thought (pun intended). As the Smarter Snack and Wellness policy rules are being crafted by USDA for the K-12 school environment this presents an interesting challenge. There is an understanding in the public health community that advertising unhealthy foods to children at school is not appropriate or good for public health. One solution is to only allow logos and advertising for foods that meet the new nutrition standards. But what do you do with a food company that offers a healthy option, among many options all under one brand or logo? (This would be restaurants basically, and not food products.) The challenges or legislating to create a culture of health and wellness . . .