Fast food advertising doesn't emphasize healthy menu items enough, and by giving away toys in things like Happy Meals restaurants are being deceptive even by their own self-regulation standards, according to scholars who showed 100 children aged 3–7 years McDonald’s and Burger King children and adult meal ads, randomly drawn from ads that aired on national U.S. television from 2010–11.

After seeing the ad, children were asked to recall what they had seen and transcripts evaluated for descriptors of food, healthy food (apples or milk), and premiums/tie-ins. All children’s ads contained images of healthy foods, like apples and milk, but premiums/tie-ins were recalled much more frequently than healthy food.

Take home message: Kids like toys more than health food. But is that deceptive? The authors believe it is, and they were funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an advocacy group best known for helping create first lady Michelle Obama's controversial changes to school lunches, so it is no surprise. RWJF did not control the results, obviously, corporations never do, but they also are not funding researchers who are not already producing work they like. 

So "deceptive" seems like a harsh term when the authors seem to be criticizing kids for not remembering milk over a toy - and want the toy removed. Psychology does not work that way, kids will not prefer apples over toys if you remove the toys from a Happy Meal.

"Kids were just as likely to notice the toy premiums in the kid's ads as they were the food, when their own standards require a de-emphasis on premiums compared to foods," said James D. Sargent, MD, researcher at Dartmouth-Hitchcock's Norris Cotton Cancer Center and senior author of the study.

The children noticed food less than 50 percent of the time in the kid's ads, but recalled it more than 70 percent of the time in the adult ads, where food was the primary focus of the commercial. They note their 95% confidence interval and seem to feel that makes it authoritative but it in a small study, of children no less and interpreting statements by adults who are looking for a particular effect, the confidence intervals is almost certain to indicate the direction of the effect studied - as it does here.

Kids only mentioned the apples and milk 10 percent of the time even though they were in all of the ads, so the authors conclude that even though the depictions of healthy menu items were present, they were not prominent enough because young children did not recall them and invoke 'deception'. That's fine for a pay-to-publish article but it looks like the claim of being peer reviewed is as deceptive as the fast-food advertising. Fast food advertising to kids is under $2 billion, so not a lot compared to the ubiquitous advertising of toys and other foods on television, and therefore it is no surprise that kids think about toys than milk, which advertises to parents and hardly to children at all.

Citation: Bernhardt AM, Wilking C, Gilbert-Diamond D, Emond JA, Sargent JD (2015) Children’s Recall of Fast Food Television Advertising—Testing the Adequacy of Food Marketing Regulation. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0119300. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0119300. Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Eating Research Program, grant #69552,(PI Sargent) and the Prouty research program of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center. Gilbert-Diamond is funded by HD076097 from the National Institutes of Health. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.