McDonald’s Instagram ads appear to target low-income kids

Key points to remember

  • A new study compared McDonald’s Instagram posts in 15 countries with different economic statuses.
  • The researchers found that McDonald’s shared more positions in low-income countries than in high-income countries.
  • Publications in low-income countries were more often aimed at children and were linked to price promotions. Posts in high-income countries focused more on healthy habits than posts in low-income countries.

With over 36,000 locations worldwide, McDonald’s is one of the largest fast food chains in the world. In recent years, the franchise’s influence has only grown as its social media platforms reach out.

However, when researchers set out to compare the company’s marketing strategies in economically diverse countries, they found that McDonald’s may be using its social media presence to target children in low-income countries.

According to the study published in BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health, McDonald’s posts more on Instagram in lower-middle-income countries than in high-income countries — 154% more, to be exact.

Omni Cassidy, Ph.D.assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine/Langone Health and co-author of the study, told Verywell that given McDonald’s global reach, researchers knew it was ” important to better understand their marketing strategies”. ”

What the researchers did

The researchers randomly selected official McDonald’s Instagram accounts in 15 countries: 7 from high-income countries, 5 from upper-middle-income countries, and 3 from lower-middle-income countries. Next, the researchers compared the posts shared on each of the Instagram accounts from September to December 2019.

Omni Cassidy, Ph.D.

It is extremely important that fast food companies, like McDonald’s, take responsibility for their role in creating an unhealthy food environment.

—Omni Cassidy, Ph.D.

Cassidy said the researchers found that “McDonald’s used more marketing themes and price promotions targeting children in lower-middle-income countries than in high-income countries.”

The places where McDonald’s messaging took a healthier turn also varied. According to Cassidy, the company “has used more health promotion themes in high-income countries than in lower- and upper-middle-income countries.”

The results of the study did not surprise the researchers. Cassidy said the findings “confirm what we already suspected. McDonald’s is finding unique ways to target adults and children in developing countries with ads for products that may lead to unhealthy eating habits and resulting illnesses. “.

Cassidy said “it is extremely important that fast food companies, like McDonald’s, take responsibility for their role in creating an unhealthy food environment.”

Study limitations

The study was observational, which means that its results cannot prove that a cause and effect relationship exists. The researchers also only looked at Instagram accounts in 15 countries and did not look at the same number of accounts for each type of income.

Cassidy added that the study did not examine “the impact of social media advertising on children’s eating behaviors, so we are unable to draw any conclusions about the impact based on this study. “.

Still, Cassidy said that, based on previous research, “we know that most advertising is for foods and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt. And research shows that these ads can influence preferences food/drinks, requests from parents and diet. more unhealthy foods seen in advertisements and more food in general.”

McDonald’s Social Media

The 15 McDonald’s Instagram accounts the researchers looked at in the study have a collective following of 10 million users. During the 4-month study period, the 15 accounts shared a total of 849 posts.

12% of posts in high-income countries targeted children, compared to 22% of posts in low-income countries.

Pricing and health messages also varied from country to country. Healthy habits were discussed in 5% of posts from high-income counties, but only in 3% from upper-middle-income countries and 2.5% from lower-middle-income countries.

Offers were also highlighted more often in low-income countries: 21.6% of posts in these countries included free gifts, while only 6% of posts in high-income countries offered a similar promotion.

The study adds to a growing body of evidence showing that fast food companies are targeting ads in rural, low-income and black neighborhoods.

Although the researchers didn’t find it surprising that McDonald’s focused its ads on healthy habits in high-income countries, they were surprised at how targeted the ads were.

“One thing we found particularly interesting was how companies chose to highlight cultural aspects in some countries but not others,” Cassidy said. For example, the Toronto Raptors were used for Canadian ads, and halal-certified food ads were shared in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.

Cassidy added that “the ability of companies to understand the communities they target is quite sophisticated.”

Why social media ads are different

McDonald’s is no stranger to kid-focused marketing. Its mascot, Ronald McDonald, first appeared in 1963. The famous Happy Meal has been around since 1979. The company regularly runs TV commercials and cross-promotions with kid-focused brands like Disney, Barbie and Hot Wheels.

These tactics appear to be working: A 2017 study found that McDonald’s, Subway, and Wendy’s children’s TV ads were associated with higher fast food consumption among preschoolers.

Cathy Monaghan

The targeted nature of digital marketing means that each ad can be tailored to appeal to each child.

—Cathy Monaghan

Today, many experts find social media ads even more concerning. Cathy Monaghansenior pediatric dietitian and founder of Weaning.ie, told Verywell that “the targeted nature of digital marketing means that each ad can be tailored to appeal to each child based on their age, interests, emotions, location, etc. ” In contrast, “toys in children’s meals or television commercials are not targeted so specifically.”

According to a 2020 review, Instagram restricted ads related to tobacco, gambling, weight loss, and alcohol. However, like other social media platforms, Instagram does not restrict ads related to unhealthy foods.

That said, trying to protect kids from marketing doesn’t mean fast food is banned – in moderation, these foods can be part of their lives.

“All foods can be eaten as part of a healthy diet,” Monaghan said. “It’s not that kids should never eat fast food – the problem is that targeted marketing of fast food interferes with a child’s ‘choice’ – especially if companies use different marketing strategies digital for families/countries with different incomes.”

Yet the images and other media kids see online can still influence how they think about and feel about food. Monaghan said that “food advertisements on social media, especially those promoting HFSS (high fat, sugar and salt) foods and [that are] aimed directly at children and adolescents – they have been shown to directly interfere with their ability to make healthy food choices. »

Cathy Monaghan

It’s not that kids should never eat fast food – the problem is that targeted marketing of fast food interferes with a child’s “choice”.

—Cathy Monaghan

The World Health Organization (WHO) cites energy-dense foods (which are high in sugar and fat) as a cause of obesity. WHO data shows that “the global prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adolescents aged 5-19 years has increased dramatically, from just 4% in 1975 to just over 18 % in 2016”.

Will fast food marketing change?

The new study may have pulled back the curtain on some of McDonald’s social marketing strategies, but what happens next is up to consumers. Cassidy thinks people will pay attention to the data, especially if public health professionals share the studies with their patients.

The researchers hope the study will encourage McDonald’s and other fast-food companies to think about how their marketing strategies might negatively impact health outcomes; a step which, according to Cassidy, “is of critical importance in countries that must deal with the double burden of infectious diseases and chronic non-infectious diseases”.

Ultimately, public health policies may need to be created to help consumers learn to recognize and respond to targeted ads on social media.

For example, Cassidy suggested that the data could be used to develop “prevention and intervention programs that will help adults and children recognize these advertisements and make food choices more in tune with their own hunger cues, their personal values ​​and culture”.

Yet such an education could prove to be a challenge. As Cassidy pointed out, “Digital and social media ads are designed to look like ‘normal’ Instagram posts, which can make it hard for adults, kids, and even parents to recognize when they see an ad. “.

What this means for you

All foods, including fast foods, can be eaten in moderation by children and adults. However, research is beginning to show that sophisticated digital marketing strategies, many aimed at children, can have “unprecedented effects” on consumer choices.

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