The Fast-Food Industry Spent $5 Billion on Advertising in 2019, and There is a Problem

The Lempert Report
July 30, 2021

According to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut the $5 billion worth of ads disproportionately targeted Black and Hispanic youth, as reported in their latest Fast Food FACTS 2021.

They also found that the industry's annual ad spending in 2019 increased by over $400 million since 2012, and that children and teens were viewing on average more than two fast food TV ads per day. The problem with these findings are all about health.  This study as well as other reports that we have seen in the past point to the frequent and widespread exposure to fast-food marketing increases young people's preferences for, and consumption of fast-food, which is largely high in calories, sugar, fat and sodium. Fast-food represents 40% of all food and beverage marketing expenditures targeted at children and teens (aged 2-17). Using 2019 Nielsen data, the study found that children aged 2-5 viewed an average of 830 TV ads for fast food over the course of the year, while children aged 6-11 viewed 787 ads, and teens and tweens aged 12-17 viewed 775 ads.

The study goes further and its analysis showed that nearly all of these ads promoted full-calorie regular menu items or the restaurants in general, while just 1% of ads viewed promoted restaurants' healthier menu items.

The study also shows that disparities in racial and ethnic targeted advertising are widening. Fast-food ad spending on Spanish-language television spiked, with a 33% increase from 2012 levels. Black youth viewed 75% more fast food ads than their White peers, up from a 60% difference found in 2012, even as TV viewership among all youth is down. On both Spanish-language and Black-targeted TV programming, restaurants advertised their low-cost large-portion value menu items and meal deals disproportionately more than on other types of programming, and no healthy menu items were advertised on Spanish-language TV.

"Fast-food consumption by children and teens has increased over the past decade, and fast-food advertising definitely plays a role in that rise," said Dr. Jennifer Harris, Senior Research Advisor for Marketing Initiatives at the Rudd Center and a co-author of the study. " Moreover, many fast-food companies tout recent introductions of healthier menu items as evidence of their commitment to improving nutrition, but they rarely promote these items in their advertising." More than 1 in 3 children eat fast-food on a given day in the United States.  The authors of the study make recommendations for actions that federal, state and local governments can take such as creating nutrition standards for kids' meals and eliminating unhealthy food and beverage marketing to children as a tax-deductible expense.