NEW YORK — Fast food giant McDonald’s appears to be focusing on selling their menu to poorer children living in developing countries, new research suggests. Researchers from New York University find that the famous burger chain is aiming their social media posts at lower to middle-income nations rather than richer nations.
They feature price promotions and child-friendly marketing, which study authors believe is worsening existing healthcare issues among vulnerable populations. Previous studies show eating too much processed or ultra-processed foods (junk food) increases the risk of obesity and chronic diseases.
The findings come from an analysis of the company’s use of Instagram in 15 countries with varying degrees of wealth. They ranged from the United Kingdom, classified as high income, to South Africa (upper-middle income), to India (lower-middle income).
“Price is a key component of a marketing mix and is often used to aid consumer purchases, particularly among lower income communities who may use price as a decision point,” writes lead author Dr. Omni Cassidy and researchers from NYU Langone Health in a media release.
“As social media use grows, fast food companies’ social media ads may have unprecedented effects on dietary options, especially in lower-income countries,” the researchers continue. “By targeting certain subsets through child-targeted ads and price promotions, McDonald’s’ social media ads may exacerbate healthcare issues in the most vulnerable countries in the world.”
Breaking down McDonald’s global marketing strategy
McDonald’s is the world’s biggest fast food company, operating in 101 countries. It has 1,300 restaurants in the U.K., more than 14,000 in the U.S., and nearly 22,000 in other countries.
The development of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and some cancers all have links to excessive eating of fast food. This first study of its kind examined all the screenshots McDonald’s posted from September to December 2019.
The team accounted for the number of followers, likes, comments, and video views of each Instagram account in April 2020. They also included activity in the U.S., Australia, Canada, UAE, Portugal, and Panama (high income); Romania, Lebanon, Malaysia, and Brazil (upper-middle income); Indonesia and Egypt (lower-middle income).
The company’s 15 social media accounts maintained a total of 10 million followers and generated 3.9 million likes, 164,816 comments, and 38.2 million video views during the study. The team also identified a total of 849 marketing posts. Results show McDonald’s posted 154 percent more messages in lower middle-income countries.
There was an average of 108 posts in middle-income nations compared with 43 in richer ones during the four-month monitoring period. The three lower-middle income countries had more posts than the five upper-middle income countries (324 vs. 227) and the seven high-income countries (298).
Child friendly posts were more common in lower-middle income countries. Around one in eight posts (12%) in high-income countries included child friendly posts compared with around one in five (22%) in lower-middle income countries.
The company’s Instagram accounts in high-income nations depicted more healthy habits (14.5%) than those of upper-middle income countries (6.3%) or those of lower-middle income countries (8. 25%). Moreover, just one in seven posts (14%) in high-income nations included price promotions and free giveaways compared with 40 percent in lower-middle income countries.
Advertising impacting global health
Fast food ads have an influential role in persuading people to eat the products. Researchers say there is a growing need to tackle the globalization of food and drink marketing in developing countries that may experience higher levels of poor diet, obesity, and obesity-related illnesses.
“This is an important and timely analysis, because we are beginning to gain insights into ‘whole systems’ determinants of food choices, which include food production, food supply, and the food environment,” says Professor Sumantra Ray, executive director of the NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health.
“Advertising and public health messaging can modify all these factors, especially the food environment, which in turn can influence and change dietary food patterns. And this study offers early but crucial insights into the impact of advertising, a relatively neglected area of nutritional research.”
The study is published in the journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.