How does fast-food advertising affect children?

Posted on Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Need to know:

Children are not always capable of understanding between fact and fiction in advertising.

Restrictions to fast-food advertising in Quebec resulted in a significant drop in childhood obesity.

Francophone children have a lower recall rate and brand preference vs. Anglophone children in Quebec.


Any parent knows the power of fast-food advertising on children. From the kid-sized meals that come in cartoon-adorned cartons to the free toys, it’s hard for children (and parents) to resist these marketing ploys. But for Quebec children who aren’t exposed to fast-food commercials (the province banned fast-food marketing aimed at children in 1980), out of sight is out of mind.

“There’s a big debate going on right now in terms of advertising targeting children,” says Prof. Tirtha Dhar, Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies. His research has looked at the impact of fast-food marketing on children.

After implementing the ban under the Quebec Consumer Protection Act, Quebec became the only province in Canada to ban fast-food advertising aimed children.

Dhar’s study compared fast-food consumption behaviour in Quebec to the rest of the provinces, focusing on Ontario because it shares a border with Quebec, as well as Francophone and Anglophone populations.

He found that fast-food consumption levels in Quebec households saw a 13 percent net decrease.

“In Francophone households with children, they have a significantly lower propensity to go and eat fast food,” says Dhar. He extrapolated the data from that study along with other sources and used it to calculate the impact of the ban on obesity rates in Quebec.

Prof. Tirtha Dhar

“Because of the ban, there is a significant decrease in the consumption of fast food, and if we believe that fast food is correlated with obesity, then we also find that the ban actually had an impact in terms of obesity,” he explains.

Although the survey data didn’t specifically collect information about obesity, Dhar says anecdotal evidence shows that Quebec children have much lower rates of obesity than children in other provinces. But he points out that eating fast food is one of many factors that contribute to childhood obesity.

The effect of fast-food marketing on children has not been the subject of much research, but a previous study showed that Francophone children have much lower recall rates and brand preferences than Anglophone children in Quebec.

Dhar says advertising is more persuasive than informative for children.

“One of the problems with advertising targeting children, and one of the reasons why we need some level of regulation, is because in most cases, children are not really capable of processing information and deciding between fact and fiction.”

Many countries and jurisdictions have implemented advertising bans that are even more restrictive, banning all forms of advertising aimed at children on TV, radio and in print. Advertising near schools is also banned in some areas.

But with so many forms of electronic media, regulation becomes even more challenging, says Dhar. Ads can pop up anywhere online.

“In the digital age, how do you regulate any kind of publication targeting children?” he asks. “We live in a world where we can consume media in so many different ways. It’s very difficult to regulate and it’s also very difficult to regulate the source of the media.”

It’s easier to ban commercials on TV than online because the source of online commercials may not be clear.

“We definitely need to protect our children in different ways, and the question is, what would be the most effective way moving forward?” asks Dhar.

Has there been any push-back from the fast-food industry?

“When you think about it, they’re in the business of making money, but they also need healthy consumers,” says Dhar. “If their consumers are dying at 25 or 30 years of age, that’s not a good business model. When I talk to the managers, they struggle with this issue because a lot of them have kids.”

Fast-food restaurant managers are interested in offering healthier food options, he adds, but they may not sell as well as french fries and cheeseburgers. 

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