Hiding Healthy Fast Food? Not Quite

A new publication in JAMA Pediatrics concludes that fast food marketeers are hiding healthy fast food from children with deceptive advertising. Is this the unbiased pursuit of knowledge? Or is it an example of confirmation bias at work?

The stated objective of the research was to determine how children (aged 3-7) interpreted depictions of apples and milk in ads by McDonald’s and Burger King. The primary outcome measure was the recall of specific food items in the commercial — milk or apples.

Bernhardt Table

The results were that children were more likely to remember the apples in the ads by McDonald’s and more likely to remember milk in the ads by Burger King. They were also more likely to falsely remember seeing french fries in the Burger King ads.

The authors don’t really discuss recall, which is what they measured. Instead, they jump into a discussion of confusion and deception. They conclude that they have found “deceptive” advertising. This discovery, they say, suggests “the need for government oversight for children’s advertising or legal action under consumer protection law.”

With a running start from these researchers, health reporters were off to the races. “Fast food commercials are messing with children’s minds,” read the headline in News on Wellness. Medical News Today used a softer touch: “Healthy fast food advertising for kids goes unnoticed.”

The truth here is that kids didn’t accurately recall what kind of food was being advertised. The only case for deception might be against Burger King because kids remembered french fries when they were shown apples.

Most likely, the real discovery here is that Burger King’s ad was poorly executed, while the McDonald’s ad was better.

As students of advertising, we suspect that the objective of the ads was not to educate kids about the revised content of kids’ meals. It was probably aimed to lead kids to believe that these meals are fun and desirable. Since the meals have been re-designed to be healthier, isn’t that a good idea?

But the researchers did not look for the effect of the ads. They looked for deception and they found it — sort of.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to favor information that confirms one’s own beliefs.

Click here and here to read reporting about the study and here to read the study itself. Click here to read about the real world effects of putting healthier items into McDonald’s Happy Meals.

Hide & Seek, photograph © Ali Arsh / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.