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Back in 2006, several fast food companies, including McDonalds and Burger King, vowed to advertise only healthier menu items to children and focus ads on the food itself instead of toys and promotions. Turns out though, to almost no surprise, they have failed at keeping their promises.

A recent study out of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has found that fast food ads heavily emphasize toys and giveaways over the food itself while another report by the Federal Trade Commission has revealed that fast food ads continue to market unhealthy food to children.

The Dartmouth study, published in the open access journal PLOS ONE, was based on an examination of all nationally televised ads for children’s meals for one year, from July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010, by leading fast food restaurants. Researchers compared the ads aimed at children and those aimed at adults to discover if the fast food companies were keeping their 2006 pledges.

99 percent of all the ads aired came straight from McDonald’s (70 percent) and Burger King (29 percent). 40 percent of McDonald’s ads, 44,062 in total, were aimed directly at children while Burger King’s ranked in at just 20 percent below with 37,210 ads.

These ads aired primarily on kid’s channels like Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney XD and Nicktoons, ensuring not only that they would reach their intended audience but also that their food was associated with fun. The ads themselves were also carefully crafted to make sure that children would grow up recognizing fast food stores and products, helping to cultivate a sense of brand loyalty at a young age.

According to Think Progress, food packaging was featured in 88 percent of ads aimed at children and only 23 percent of adult ads. Furthermore, 41 percent of ads directed at children included a street view image of the fast food restaurant, but only 12 percent of adult ads featured similar imaging.

What adult ads also lacked were promotions, which were plentiful in children’s commercials. 70 percent of all commercials aimed at children featured toy giveaways and over half made mention of major movies (compared to only 14 percent of ads for adults).

“Advertisers use images of toy premiums, music, and movie characters to associate their product with excitement, energy, and fun,” said lead researcher Jim Sargent, co-director of the Cancer Control Program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center, in a press release. “They emphasize recognition of the brand, the packaging and the restaurant, with little emphasis on the food products sold there. This heavy dose of branding serves to help a child recognize the storefront of a fast food chain from the backseat and pester their parents to stop for a meal that features the latest superhero.”

Perhaps this marketing might be okay, or at the very least tolerable if the food being pimped out to children was healthy. But of course this is not the case.

The Federal Trade Commission has found that the bulk of the money used to market to children and teens was spent on the promotion of unhealthy products. More than $714 million was spent on youth marketing in 2009 by fast food restaurants, far exceeding all other food and beverage companies.

Some companies have made slight improvements in the nutritional qualities of children’s meals, the study reveals, yet the number of child-targeted TV ads for higher calories meals and food items has more than doubled between 2006 and 2009.

These facts are indeed upsetting and as the Dartmouth researchers concluded in their study, additional oversight of fast food marketing to children is needed. But even if regulations are put into place that doesn’t mean fast food will suddenly disappear or be any less tempting.

We can criticize fast food companies all we want for their failures but maybe we need to take a closer look inside our homes for failures of our own. Advertising is an undeniably powerful influence on children these days yet if children are taught from a young age what fast food really is perhaps issues like childhood obesity and early onset diabetes could be mitigated. What do you think?

For a succinct infographic review of the Dartmouth study featured in this article, click here.

Image source: Jason Ippolito/ Flickr