Study: TV ads have dramatic impact on children’s fast-food consumption

HANOVER, N. H. — If your kids would rather down a Big Mac for dinner than a home-cooked burger, the TV may be to blame. A new study finds that preschoolers who watch programming with advertisements for fast-food are more likely to eat products from those restaurants than children not exposed to ads.

The study, conducted by researchers in Dartmouth University, is the first of its kind to link fast-food commercials to consumption in preschool-aged children.

McDonald's Ronald McDonald
A new study finds that preschoolers are more likely to eat fast-food products when they’re frequently exposed to TV commercials for them.

“Most parents won’t be surprised by the study’s findings since they probably know this from observing their own children, and the results are also consistent with food marketing influences that have been observed in highly controlled laboratory settings,” says lead author Madeline Dalton, PhD, a professor of pediatrics at the university, in a news release.

Dalton and her team recruited 548 families with preschool-aged children in Southern New Hampshire for the study. Parents filled out a survey that reported their children’s TV-viewing time, the channels they watched, and their fast-food consumption.

Their responses were cross-referenced with a list of fast-food commercials aired on kids’ TV channels during the same period. Researchers calculated each child’s exposure to advertising from three major brands: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Subway.

The results showed that forty-three percent of the preschoolers surveyed ate from one of the three restaurants during the previous week — nearly identical to the 41% of the preschoolers who were exposed to TV advertising for such products.

Ultimately, the researchers found that children who had moderate or high exposure to fast-food TV ads were 30% more likely to consume the often unhealthy meals.

Interestingly, nearly three out of four fast-food ads the children viewed were for McDonald’s, which was the clear favorite place to eat, accounting for nearly 80% of fast-food consumption.

Researchers found that advertising exposure was independent of other factors that contribute to eating fast-food, such as socioeconomic status, how much their parents ate from such restaurants, and the overall number of television hours watched.

“An important part of the take-home message for parents is that there are preschool channels that don’t feature fast-food advertising, and to the extent that they can direct their child’s viewing to those channels exclusively, they themselves can protect their children from that exposure,” says Meghan Longacre, PhD, a study co-author and assistant professor of biomedical data sciences.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, fast-food chains create the most exposure to food advertising in children ages two to 11 in the United States. The industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on child-targeted advertising.

The study’s findings were published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

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