Kids are a lucrative prize for the fast food industry: Studies have found that kids can form strong bonds with certain brands, and that those bonds can last for their entire lives.
A new study from Arizona State University has found that fast food restaurants more aggressively target certain kinds of children with marketing: specifically children living in middle-income neighborhoods, rural communities and majority black neighborhoods. The research will be published in the December edition of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
For the study, researchers from Arizona State University, the University of Illinois at Chicago and Barker Bi-Coastal Health Consultants, Inc., analyzed 6,716 fast food restaurants around the country. The researchers studied fast food chains with at least 20 restaurants, and did not distinguish between corporate-owned and franchised outfits.
The study looked at interior marketing tactics, like play areas and displays of meal toys, and exterior strategies, like posters of cartoon and movie characters and images of toys displayed outside the restaurants. The study did not analyze advertisements for children in the media, including tactics like TV commercials and digital ads.
The researchers found that one-fifth of the fast food restaurants they studied utilized the in-store child-directed marketing tactics they were looking for. And the stores that did were more likely to be located in certain communities: Fast food restaurants in predominantly black neighborhoods were about 67 percent more likely to use child-directed marketing than those in white neighborhoods. Additionally, restaurants in rural areas were 40 percent more likely to use these tactics than those in urban areas.
Fast food restaurants in poor neighborhoods only used child-directed marketing about 4 percent more than restaurants in high-income neighborhoods, the researchers found. But middle-income neighborhoods, defined as the 25th-75th percentile of median incomes, stuck out: Restaurants in those areas were 28 to 34 percent more likely to use interior and exterior marketing focused on children than restaurants in upper-income neighborhoods.
Chain restaurants were more than 6 times more likely to use these strategies than independent restaurants, the researchers found.
Fast food restaurants allocated roughly $700 million to market towards children and teens in 2009, Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, the lead researcher on the study and an associate professor of nutrition at Arizona State University, said in a press release about the research.
"Marketing food to children is of great concern not only because it affects their current consumption patterns, but also because it may affect their taste and preferences," Ohri-Vachaspati said. "We know that consumption of fast food in children may lead to obesity or poorer health, and that low income and minority children eat fast food more often."
While it may seem counterintuitive that researchers found more child-focused marketing in rural areas than in urban ones, Sriram Madhusoodanan, a spokesperson for Corporate Accountability International, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, told The Huffington Post that the "lack of access to fast food alternatives" in rural and low-income areas drives fast food companies to enter the communities and market more intensively. Madhusoodanan's group pushes for fast food companies to be subject to tighter marketing and health standards.
Madhusoodanan drew a parallel between the tactics of fast food chains and tobacco companies.
"This really the same cradle-to-grave marketing strategy that tobacco used: Hook them early and hook them for life," said Madhusoodanan.
Over the last 30 years, childhood obesity has doubled and adolescent obesity has quadrupled. Forty percent of 12-to-19-year-olds eat at a fast food restaurant on any given day, according to a November 2012 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.