Written by Pooja Suganthan
Edited by Elizabeth Badalov
TikTok’s biggest star Charli D’Amelio collaborated with Dunkin Donuts to launch “The Charli” drink in September 2020. Charli, who is notorious for sipping on Dunkin’ while dancing on TikTok, promoted her video to her 85.8 million followers. Charli’s Gen Z fans were eager to try her favorite drink. Within a month, Charli’s promotional videos collectively garnered over 294 million views. To purchase The Charli, fans were required to download the Dunkin’ app, which increased app downloads by 57%. Dunkin’ isn’t the only fast food company to tap into TikTok; McDonald’s promoted the Travis Scott meal by having fans share videos of them ordering in “Sicko Mode” and Chipotle hosted their #ChipotleLidFlip challenge with Youtuber David Dobrik. Despite the fast food industry’s TikTok success, exposure to fast food advertisements on social media platforms contributes to unhealthy dietary choices among children, and in turn contributes to childhood obesity.
Currently, 19.3% of children in the United States are considered obese. A major contributor to the recent rise in childhood obesity is children’s overexposure to fast food marketing. Fast food companies use a range of techniques to build brand loyalty at a young age. TikTok may have popped up recently, but child-directed fast food advertising has been a catalyst for childhood obesity for decades.
In the 1970s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) limited the amount of advertising time for children’s programming, but the FCC could not regulate advertisers’ content. In 1978, The Federal Trades Commission attempted to ban all child-directed television ads but plans were terminated due to threats from the TV and advertising industry. In the 1980s, FCC regulations eased under the Reagan administration and reversed years of petitioning to ban advertising from children’s programming. The Children’s Television Act of 1990 limited commercial time to 12 minutes per half hour on weekdays and 10.5 minutes on weekends.
In 2006, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative formed to “shift the mix of advertising primarily directed to children (‘child-directed advertising’) to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles.” Each of the 19 participating fast food companies, committed to self-designed pledges, agreed to dedicate at least 50% of their child-directed advertising efforts and messaging to healthier menu options. However, this voluntary initiative was poorly enforced as companies amped up their child-directed advertisements disguised behind their false promises. For example, a McDonald’s Happy Meal commercial heavily focused on McNuggets and McFries claimed to promote healthier eating habits because they featured apple dippers and chocolate milk in the background. Fast food companies find loopholes to conceal their healthier promises as they continue to promote unhealthy options to young children.
In more recent years, we have observed a shift as children’s screen time transitioned from television viewing to time spent online. Studies have been conducted on television food advertising and the extent of children’s probable exposure, marketing strategies, effect on eating behavior, and causation relationship with body weight. For every one-hour increase in daily TV time, consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, fast food, and red and processed meat increases by 48.7 kcal per day. Similar research about digital marketing is ongoing. This is crucial especially following the COVID-19 pandemic, as the average child’s screen time jumped from 4 to 8 hours a day.
As screen time increases, so does exposure to unhealthy fast food marketing. In 2019, the fast food industry spent $5 billion on child-directed advertising. Fast food companies know that child-directed marketing has a powerful, direct impact on young children’s dietary choices. Individuals develop eating habits at a young age, so kids recognize and remember branding.
“The [current] digital environment is so much more personal and so much more intrusive and pervasive,” said Kathryn Montgomery, a media policy professor at American University. “Marketing takes place across multiple platforms in an orchestrated way to reach and engage individual consumers and to do so repeatedly, which is not the same thing as what you see on television ten years ago.”
Ad campaigns cater to children by creating eye-catching, engaging content. For example, fast food ads often incorporate advergames, celebrities, influencers, social media challenges, and slogans to steer children toward their food products. It’s common to see fast food accounts participate in trends to relate to young consumers on a more personal level. This “advertainment” approach worked in Chipotle’s favor as they partnered with celebrities and influencers, like Justin Bieber, to launch their Super Bowl challenge, #TikTokTimeout, to promote Free Delivery Sundays. The video reached over 95 million people on TikTok, and over 2.5 million engagements when Bieber shared the post on Twitter and Instagram. Such strategies successfully promote food products to children, but they heavily impact children’s dietary choices and practices.
“Children are more vulnerable to advertising when it is integrated into content. The fact that children who spend hours a day on YouTube and TikTok feel like they have relationships with influencers makes these junk food pitches even more powerful,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood
Ideally, to protect underage children from stealthy fast food marketing, children under age 13 should not have social media accounts, but underage children can easily bypass this restriction.
In order for children to maturely evaluate an advertisement, they must be able to (1) distinguish between a commercial and noncommercial content and (2) acknowledge the persuasive objective of the advertisement. Children under age 5 cannot differentiate ads from content, and children under age 8 do not comprehend advertisements’ persuasive intentions. That’s why child-directed digital advertising works so well: younger children are impressionable to commercial recall and product preferences. The fast food industry knows this, and they take advantage of this vulnerability by creating positive associations with their products.
"Less time in front of TV screens is not protecting kids from fast-food TV ads," said Dr. Frances Fleming-Milici, Director of Marketing Initiatives at the Rudd Center. "Now more than ever parents need support in raising healthy children, and consistent exposure to ads featuring burgers, fries and pizza sabotages their best efforts. Media companies, policymakers and advocates can play a vital role in demanding an end to irresponsible advertising."
As shown by the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, self-regulation in the fast food industry is ineffective. The industry’s top priority is profit, not the well-being of its consumers. Government regulation is necessary to protect children from targeted fast food marketing, but previous attempts show that opposing the fast food industry can be a difficult endeavor. In the meantime, social media platforms, such as TikTok and Instagram, should adopt policies that eliminate children’s online exposure to such content and align with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations:
apply to children under age 18
include all marketing techniques (direct advertising, sponsored posts, product placement, influencer collaborations)
define unhealthy foods and beverages based on WHO endorsed criteria
Other developed countries, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and Sweden, have already implemented restrictions on child-directed fast food advertising. It is time for the United States to stop exploiting children’s naivety for the benefit of the fast food industry and pass similar policies. Social media platforms can aid in this process by filtering content to reduce children’s exposure to influential material.