The McDonald’s hamburger fast food chain is targeting poor children living in developing countries, a new study finds.
The US-based franchise focuses its social media posts on lower-middle-income countries rather than richer ones, scientists have found.
They feature price promotions and child-friendly marketing – exacerbating existing health problems in vulnerable populations, the researchers said.
Eating too much junk food increases the risk of obesity and chronic disease.
The results are based on an analysis of the company’s use of Instagram in 15 countries of varying wealth.
They ranged from the UK – classified as high income – to South Africa, which was classified as upper middle income, and India – lower middle income.
Lead author Dr Omni Cassidy, New York University, said, “Price is a key part of a marketing mix.
“It is often used to make shopping easier for consumers, especially among low-income communities who can use price as a decision point.
“As the use of social media increases, advertisements by fast food companies on social media can have unprecedented effects on food options, especially in low-income countries.
“By targeting certain subsets through advertisements targeted at children and price promotions, McDonald’s social media ads can exacerbate health problems in the world’s most vulnerable countries.”
McDonald’s is the world’s largest fast food restaurant, with operations in 101 countries.
It has 1,300 restaurants in the UK, over 14,000 in the US and nearly 22,000 in other countries.
Cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and some cancers all originate from excessive fast food consumption.
The first such study is based on all screenshots released by McDonald’s from September through December 2019.
The number of subscribers, “likes”, “comments” and video views associated with each Instagram account was counted in April 2020.
The other countries included were the United States, Australia, Canada, United Arab Emirates, Portugal and Panama (high income); Romania, Lebanon, Malaysia and Brazil (upper middle income); Indonesia and Egypt (lower middle income).
The 15 accounts maintained a total of 10 million subscribers and generated 3.9 million “likes”, 164,816 comments and 38.2 million video views.
A total of 849 marketing positions were identified. McDonald’s grew 154% more in lower-middle-income countries.
There were an average of 108 positions compared to 43 during the four-month follow-up period.
The three lower-middle-income countries had more positions than the five upper-middle-income countries (324 versus 227) and the seven high-income countries (298).
Child-friendly positions were more common in lower-middle-income countries than in high-income ones.
About 1 in 8 (12%) in high-income countries included child-friendly positions, compared to about 1 in 5 (22%) in lower-middle-income countries.
The company’s Instagram accounts in high-income countries exhibited more healthy habits (14.5%) than those in upper-middle-income countries (6.3%) or those in lower-middle-income countries. the lower slice (8.25%).
And only one in seven (14%) in high-income countries included price promotions and free gifts, compared to 40% in lower-middle-income countries.
Fast food ads have an influential role in persuading people to eat the products.
There is a growing need to tackle the globalization of food and beverage marketing in developing countries which may experience higher levels of unhealthy diets, obesity and related illnesses, the researchers added.
Professor Sumantra Ray, Executive Director of the NNEdPro Global Center for Nutrition and Health, a Cambridge-based think tank, added: “This is an important and timely analysis.
“We are starting to better understand the determinants of ‘whole systems’ of food choices, including food production, food supply and the food environment.
“Advertising and public health messages can change all of these factors, especially the food environment, which in turn can influence and change eating habits.
“And this study offers early but crucial information on the impact of advertising, a relatively neglected area of nutritional research.”
The study is in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health.
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