Fast Food Marketing Effects on Childhood Obesity


by Erynn

I watched the documentary, Super Size Me in high school and then again during a Health and Wellness class during my first semester of college. What stood out to me was not what the crazy weight gain director, Morgan Spurlock, experienced, but the advertisements these fast food companies were aiming towards children. For example, in Super Size Me, first grade students from Worchester, MA were asked who Ronald McDonald was. Several explanations were given including: he “helps people at the cash register,” “he works at McDonald’s and I love their pancakes and sausage,” and “he brings all of his friends to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal.” When the students were asked where they’ve seen Ronald McDonald, responses were given such as: “on television, on the commercials” and “he’s the character that made McDonald’s and he does a lot of funny stuff on TV”. This illustrates how children remember this iconic character which, in turn, helps to sponsor the unhealthy products McDonald’s sells.

Children receive pressure from all angles of marketing. Marketers have come to realize what Ray Kroc and Walt Disney discovered; that “brand loyalty” may begin before children can identify their own name. Research on marketing techniques has shown that children recognize the color, shape, and lettering of a brand logo (Schlosser 43). Fast food companies’ continued marketing techniques directed towards children by attracting them with various television and cartoon characters and should be restricted because of the contribution this has to childhood obesity and an unhealthy diet.

The McDonald’s Happy Meal made its premiere in 1979. For mothers with jobs, the Happy Meal provided them with a break from cooking (Morrison par. 17). Shortly after McDonald’s featured the Happy Meal, Burger King launched its own kids’ meals (Morrison par. 18). This menu breakthrough of ity-bity kid-sized burgers, a miniature bag of french fries, and a toy was targeted at kids.

The competition to attract children became a rivalry among fast food restaurants. In 1997, in order to increase business and attract a younger crowd, various agencies were urged by marketers to produce more than the typical, bland commercials. When the cartoon series, Superman, started showing during the week on Kid’s WB, Burger King and Superman teamed up, advertising on the same commercial. Mattel’s Barbie/Rapunzel and Hot Wheels became the prime focus during commercials for Happy Meal toys at McDonald’s (Benezra par. 3). This expanded marketing approach in 1997 was the start for the top fast food companies whose sole purpose was to attract children’s attention by focusing on favorite programs.

Once Ronald McDonald began to be as widely known as Walt Disney’s mascot, Mickey Mouse, Kroc continued to expand his empire by creating his own Disneyland by building small Playlands and McDonaldlands (Schlosser 42). McDonald’s was not trying to keep their intended audience a secret, with “bright colors, a playground, a toy, a clown, a drink with a straw, and little pieces of food wrapped up like a present,” McDonald’s is a child’s dream restaurant (Schlosser 42).

Some believe fast food companies care for their customers and understand that their customers want to live a balanced, healthy lifestyle. According to the Modern Healthcare magazine in an article titled, “Mcdonald’s Lite”, McDonald’s plans to lighten their menu. Many were skeptical about McDonald’s new plan and with this came the debate of whether or not McDonald’s should be in one of the nation’s premier hospitals. The Cleveland Clinic chief executive and cardiac surgeon, Delos “Toby” Cosgrove, continued to question if it was appropriate to host a fast food restaurant in a hospital known for cardiac care and pushed for a “heart-healthy” menu (Modern Healthcare par. 5). Ironic, don’t you think? Fast food in one of the nation’s premier hospitals. No wonder the cardiac surgeon was not in support of this barely “lightened up” menu.

But maybe fast food companies do want what is best for their customers and support their customers’ healthy habits. In an article titled “McDonald’s Seeks Ways to Pitch Healthy Living”, author, Richard Gibson highlights the ways McDonald’s is promoting a healthy living style to children. Various pitches include taking “at least 10,000 steps a day”, distributing soccer kits to coaches, and recreating Ronald McDonald as an exercise advocate (Gibson par. 9). But wait, McDonald’s plans to promote the “go-active” and “balanced lifestyle” message to promote physical activity. Promoting this message does not mean McDonald’s is changing their iconic yellow arches and bright red logo, no longer providing kids’ meals, nor substituting healthy options for the unhealthy ones. These “go-active” and “balanced lifestyle” messages don’t cut it for me.

In Laura A. King’s The Science of Psychology textbook, the psychodynamic approach of psychology is explained as, “emphasizing unconscious thought, the conflict between biological drives and society’s demands, and early childhood family experiences” (King 12). The founder of the psychodynamic approach, Sigmund Freud, believed a person’s personality was based on the early relationships with his or her parents. Freud’s theory became the backbone to a therapeutic technique called psychoanalysis. During the psychoanalysis method, the therapist would talk to the person about his or her childhood in hopes to open that individual’s unconscious conflicts as well as that person’s “dreams, thoughts and feelings” (King 12). Therefore, according to this approach, the homesick childhood memories of this fast food logo will lead to a lifetime continuation of fast food purchases because this fast food logo reminds that individual of his or her childhood.

The solution to this problem is simple: do not let fast food corporations aim their marketing towards youth. Happy meal toys, commercials with their favorite action heroes/princesses, catchy Disney-themed music, etc. are contributing to the obesity epidemic. If marketing is required to change, then making the menu healthier is the next step. Granted, McDonald’s is known for its McDouble and high calorie dipping sauces so this may take away from their signature image, but if they care about their customers they will support a healthier lifestyle. If fast food companies are not willing to follow this policy, then regulatory actions should apply.

It was not McDonald’s intention to contribute to the obesity epidemic, but with continued marketing techniques directed towards children, the corporation’s advertisements have impacted consumer choices. Young people who are obese face long-term and immediate threats to their health, and as Schlosser writes in Fast Food Nation, “severely obese American children, aged six to ten, are now dying from heart attacks caused by their weight” (Schlosser 242). No long-term, epidemiological study has been done to successfully prove that a nation’s fast food consumption and its rate of obesity are directly correlated, but nevertheless fast food restaurants have done their job to market their fatty products resulting in children being regular customers. From McDonaldland to Happy Meal toys, the marketing proves how the psychodynamic approach of psychology works. Comfort and guidance come to mind when one remembers his or her childhood. Therefore, children were trained at a young age that McDonald’s is the fun and happy place to be. As these children age, regular visits to fast food joints will be made. These individuals remember their nostalgic childhood memories with patches full of countless hamburgers, apple pies hanging off tree branches, and fountains spouting out Filet-O-Fishes.

Works Cited

Benezra, Karen. “Fall Fast Food Market Cluttered With Kid-Stuff.” Brandweek 38.26 (1997): 12. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.

Gibson, Richard. “McDonald’s Seeks Ways to Pitch Healthy Living.” Wall Street Journal – Eastern Edition 27 May 2004: D7. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.

King, Laura A., and John W. Santrock. The Science of Psychology: Modules. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. Print.

“Mcdonald’s Lite.” Modern Healthcare 35.31 (2005): 36. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.

Morrison, Maureen. “Can Kids’ Food Mascots Survive The Obesity War? (Cover Story).” Advertising Age 83.17 (2012): 1-21. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Boston: Houghton, 2001.

Spurlock, Morgan, dir. Super Size Me. Kathbur Pictures, 2004. DVD.



8 thoughts on “Fast Food Marketing Effects on Childhood Obesity

  1. How about the now healthier alternatives that fast food restaurants have to offer? No doubt that the unhealthy food appeals more to kids but hopefully with people like you bringing awareness to the matter we can start to fix this problem and have a healthier future!

    • Hello there, I really enjoyed this article and it made me think. I never realized how bad food chains can be. It’s like they draw in your attention, especially young kids with toys. “If you eat your food, you get a toy.” Although the food that is being eaten, is nowhere near healthy. Very nice article!

  2. Hi Erynn, first off you are a very talented artist and i love your visual for this blog posting. It was a very clever design. With reading your blog i see how fast food chains are sort of evil. The way they attract kids with toys, bright colors, and play houses is a horrible thing. It worked on me when i was a kid and i’m sure it works on kids now. Overall very well written blog and great visual great job!

  3. Very nice visual for your blog post. There are definitely tactics that fast food companies use to attract children to their products from the colors they use to the words and subliminal messages that companies use in advertisements.

  4. I don’t see a problem with it. Everyone has a right to go to a fast food restaurant. It is up to the individual who they want to patronize. I realize that we are in a society of advertising and it is up to the parents to decide if the restaurant is having a negative effect on their children.

  5. The design of your visual is very brilliant. However I think the issue of children patronizing unhealthy foods is the responsibility of their parents. While some parents may pay critical attention to it, others will not.

  6. First off, I love your visual! It is a great way to represent what your topic is about. I agree with your article on how much advertising is aimed towards children, such as the children’s toy in the McDonald’s meal. These meals that are horrible for children are being advertised better than healthy foods, and that may be the cause of the obesity epidemic.

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