Fast-Food Giants Are Still Luring in Kids the Old-Fashioned Way—With Toys

New study finds not much has changed when it comes to hawking Happy Meals.

Fast Food Still Markets Toys to Kids

(Photo: Calgary Reviews/Flickr; Creative Tools)

Jason Best has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It’s probably too much of a stretch to equate fast-food execs and some creepy guy in a clown costume with a possible rap sheet peddling ice cream to kids—yet why does the comparison keep popping into my head?

To wit, a new report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation finds that two of America’s largest fast-food giants have basically reneged on their promises to market their fat-laden, obesity-wreaking calorie bombs to kids in a more responsible way. In fact, they haven’t changed tactics much at all.

Researches obtained every nationally televised ad for the top 25 fast-food chains in the U.S. that aired between July 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010, then watched them all. (Couch potato’s dream or fitness fanatic’s nightmare—your call.) More than 90 of those ads were for kids’ meals, and with the exception of one or two, all were either for McDonald’s (70 percent) or Burger King (29 percent).

And what did the researchers’ discover (other than the fact that they can never look at a cheeseburger again)? When marketing to kids, both McDonald’s and Burger King were still relying heavily on toy giveaways and movie tie-ins at the expense of focusing on the actual food, defying voluntary restrictions on kids ads that both chains agreed to back in 2006. That’s a problem, according to experts, because kids have a difficult time distinguishing between the junk food that’s actually being hawked and the promotion that’s meant to get them to harass mom and dad until finally, for god’s sake, someone just breaks down and pulls into the friggin’ drive-thru already.

(Well, that’s not exactly what the experts say, but it’s close enough.)

No surprise that, for their part, both BK and Mickey D’s deny any wrongdoing. A Burger King spokesman tells AdAge, “We disagree with the results of the study,” while McDonald’s own flak argues, “The study in question is based on data that is three years old and does not accurately reflect our current advertising nor our commitment to promoting balanced choices, nutrition and active lifestyles in 100% of our marketing communications to children.”

A hundred percent, really? Because I just went to the McDonald’s Happy Meal page, and pretty much the first thing I saw was a Power Ranger.

The fact that both McDonald’s and Burger King are doing a lot more talking about “promoting balanced choices…blah, blah, blah” for kids than actually doing it shouldn’t be a surprise really. If the companies aren’t going to offer much in the way of “balanced choices,” then what do they have to advertise?

Last spring, the Center for Science in the Public Interest surveyed some 3,500 kids meal combos at 30 of the nation’s top restaurant chains and, shockingly, found that 91 percent failed to meet nutrition standards set for healthy kids meals by the restaurant industry’s own trade association. Yep, 91 percent of kids meals out there don’t even qualify as “healthy” based on the fast-food industry’s own standards.

An analysis of McDonald’s Happy Meals was particularly dismal: The burger giant was one of nine chains where not a single kids meal combo on the menu met the healthier nutrition standards.

The only chain to get a gold star for its kids meal offerings? Subway.

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