Fast-food kids’ meals have become nearly synonymous with promotional giveaways — brightly colored toys promoting a hit TV show or newly released feature film, most of which get lodged between couch cushions or forgotten about just in time for the next toy’s release. This cycle has been criticized for grooming children into an unhealthy fast-food lifestyle, with a recent study finding that fast-food ads care far less about getting kids to eat the restaurant’s food than they care about getting them to play with the toys.

The fast-food ad controversy is set against a backdrop of rising childhood obesity in the United States. In the last 30 years alone, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled among adolescents, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. In 2010, more than one-third of all children and adolescents were either overweight or obese. Such an epidemic makes research into fast-food restaurant practices even more urgent, as growing bodies of research suggest that kids are most influenced by what they see and hear in popular culture, not what they are exposed to at home.

How Companies Breed Lifelong Loyalty

Published in the journal PLoS ONE, the comprehensive study analyzed all nationally televised commercial advertisements for the top 25 quick service restaurants (QSR) between 2009 and 2010. Advertisements were evaluated on whether they seemed intended for children or adults based on either food or toy prominence, with special attention on promotional material and meal tie-ins.

"Given health concerns about obesity and its relation to fast-food consumption,” the study's authors wrote, “enhanced oversight of fast-food marketing to children at the local, state and federal level is needed to align advertising to children with health promotion efforts and existing principles of honest and fair marketing to children.”

The team’s researchers found 99 percent of all commercials over the year came from McDonald’s or Burger King (70 percent vs. 29 percent, respectively). Out of the commercials targeted to kids, 79 percent of the 25,000 advertisements aired on four networks alone — Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney XD, and Nicktoons. Visual branding, the team noted, was even more prominent in children’s ads than adults’, as 88 percent of kids’ advertisements displayed food packaging while only 23 percent of adults’ ads did.

While a sizable portion of children’s ads featured food packaging, promotional tie-ins, and giveaways, researchers found advertisements directed at adults focused on taste, price, and portion size. Such tactics give experts alarm, as the impressionable youth often find great comfort in familiar faces, those being the ones they see most frequently.

"Fast-food companies use free toys and popular movies to appeal to kids, and their ads are much more focused on promotions, brands and logos – not on the food," said study leader Dr. James Sargent, pediatrics professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, in a news release. "These are techniques that the companies' own self-regulatory body calls potentially misleading."

What The Giants Can And Can’t Say

As far as legality is concerned, fast-food companies have limits on what they can claim and display through their advertisements. The Beverage Business Bureau runs as Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) that prescribes fair practice guidelines to companies for how to market their products to children; however, the latest study found companies seldom uphold their self-regulatory practices. CARU asserts that children often have difficulty parsing out advertisement from food service, which means a double cheeseburger pales in attractiveness compared to the toy beside it.

“Research shows that when companies are promoting brand-oriented messages to children, [kids] make very long-lasting and deeply held emotional connections to the brand,” Andrew Cheyne, a researcher at the Berkeley Media Studies Group, told Time. “So this form of marketing allows for kids to make lifelong brand preferences at a very early age.”

One 2011 study of Santa Clara County in California showed that a countywide ban on promotional tie-ins to children resulted in a greater prevalence of healthier food options. Restaurants removed posters that were hung at a child’s eye-level, reduced advertisement of meals with high salt, sugar, and fat contents, and dissociated promotional toys with children’s meals.

“They provided better on-site nutritional guidance, and did a better job of promoting and providing healthier meals,” said Jennifer Otten, assistant professor of health services at University of Washington School of Public Health, adding, however, that only four percent of the children’s meals met Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) standards before the ban, and that four months later, the number hadn’t changed.

Responsibility Not Just Child’s Play

Otten’s study underscores a crucial point in the fight against childhood obesity — that children below a certain age do not purchase fast food themselves. Parent responsibility is undeniably a factor, and the degree to which a parent believes it weighs on a child’s dietary habits likely ties into how often he or she lets the child eat fast food.

In either case, consumer awareness falls on the shoulders of fast-food companies, which is why, for instance, the Federal Trade Commission and other communication organizations place regulations on what advertisements can legally claim. Fast food cannot present any claims that are false, deceptive, or unfair. Promotional tie-ins, however, are a different beast altogether, and given the latest research into their effectiveness and ubiquity, parent responsibility faces an uphill battle.

“Not only are the fast food companies making lifelong customers out of children, but they have the ability to go after the children’s children as well through intergenerational brand preferences,” Cheyne told Time. “This form of marketing is a very serious concern.”

Source: Bernhardt A, Wilking C, Adachi-Mejia A. How Television Fast Food Marketing Aimed at Children Compares with Adult Advertisements. PLoS ONE. 2013.