TV ads offering toys may drive family visits to fast food restaurants

(Reuters Health) - The more U.S. children watch television commercials for fast food restaurants, the more often their families eat at those restaurants, according to a small study.

Children’s requests to go to the fast food chains drove how often families ate there, and kids’ requests were often motivated by a desire to collect toy premiums featured in the TV ads, researchers found.

Some fast food restaurants have promised not to engage in misleading advertising, said lead study author Jennifer Emond. McDonalds and Burger King, for example, pledged to make toys the secondary focus of their ads.

However, in previous research, Emond found that children noticed the toys in ads just as much as the food, suggesting that these restaurants may not be keeping their promise.

“We conducted this current study to see if a child’s exposure to TV ads for kid’s fast food meals related to family visits to those restaurants,” said Emond, an instructor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire.

The researchers also wanted to see if these visits were related to a child wanting to collect a toy from a restaurant, Emond said.

The Dartmouth team surveyed 100 parents of children ages three to seven, asking them how often their children watched shows on Nickelodeon, Nicktoons, Cartoon Network and Disney, children’s networks where fast-food companies often advertise, and how often they visited McDonald’s or Burger King.

As reported in The Journal of Pediatrics, the researchers found that 37 percent of parents reported visiting McDonald’s or Burger King at least once per month.

In addition, 54 percent of the children asked to visit at least one of the restaurants. This number was higher for the 29 percent of children who collected toys from the restaurants, of whom nearly 83 percent asked to visit one or both of the restaurants.

Families with more TVs at home and those with a TV in the child’s bedroom visited fast food restaurants more often than other families.

Children who watched more TV during the day, and who spent more time watching one of the four children’s networks, also tended to have more visits to fast food restaurants.

Emond said children are attracted to the toys they see in fast food commercials, and this leads them to want to visit these restaurants. “That is risky because the foods offered at these restaurants are high in calories, fat and sugar, and young children who eat at these restaurants may develop poor dietary habits that lead to excess weight gain and poor health,” Emond said.

Vivica Kraak, an assistant professor of food and nutrition policy at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, said the study is somewhat limited by its small size. However, she noted, other research confirms that marketers focus heavily on getting children to recognize food brands.

Kraak, who was not involved in the research, said younger children may be especially vulnerable because they cannot distinguish between ads intended to sell a product and information given to them by an adult.

In addition, Kraak said by email, “Children develop deep emotional relationships with these characters and mascots . . . that are in the form of a toy and they want to collect them.”

Kraak recommends that parents follow the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines and limit children’s television viewing to less than two hours per day. She also advises parents to select channels such as PBS that show Sesame Workshop characters or the Disney Channel that use their characters to promote fruits and vegetables.

“We have to be realistic that children will watch TV,” Emond said. “But parents have many options for commercial-free programming, which are great options for parents to have more control over how marketers reach their children.”

SOURCE: The Journal of Pediatrics, online October 30, 2015.