Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity has issued a November 2010 report claiming that “children as young as age 2 are seeing more fast food ads than ever before.” Titled Fast Food F.A.C.T.S.: Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score, the report purportedly evaluated “the marketing efforts of 12 of the nation’s largest fast food chains, and examined the calories, fat, sugar and sodium in more than 3,000 kids’ meal combinations and 2,781 menu items.” According to a concurrent press release, researchers relied on syndicated data from The Nielsen Company, comScore, Inc., and Arbitron Inc. to determine “that the fast food industry spent more than $4.2 billion on marketing and advertising in 2009, focusing extensively on television, the Internet, social media sites and mobile applications.”

Among its key findings, the study claims that (i) “Unhealthy foods and beverages still dominate restaurant menus”; (ii) “The restaurant environment does not help steer people toward the healthier selections”; (iii) “Marketing to youth is effective”; (iv) “Youth exposure to fast food ads is dramatic [and] increasing”; and (v) “Companies target African American and Hispanic youth.” In particular, the report notes that not only does the average preschooler see “almost three ads per day for fast food,” but that this number increases for subsequent age groups and that “children’s food choices are affected by secondhand exposure” to ads intended for adult audiences.

The Rudd Center, which also provides a ranking of children’s meals based on their nutritional content, thus urges young people to “consume less of the calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods served at fast food restaurants.” It also calls on fast food restaurants to “drastically change their current marketing practices,” as well as adopt “meaningful standards for child-targeted marketing” that go beyond the voluntary Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. These standards would include (i) nutrition criteria that apply “to all kids’ meals served, not just items pictured in the marketing,” and (ii) an expansion of “child-targeted” marketing to include “TV ads and other forms of marketing viewed by large numbers of children but not exclusively targeted to them.” In addition, the report apparently singles out McDonald’s, directing the company to “stop marketing directly to preschoolers.”

Meanwhile, a November 8, 2010, Advertising Age article has covered the industry response to the report, which the headline describes as a “canned defense.” The National Restaurant Association, however, has pointed to the “growing array of nutritious offerings for children.” As one association spokesperson was quoted as saying, “The industry has also led the way in advocating that nutrition information be made available to consumers in chain restaurants.”

In a related development, the World Health Organization (WHO) has released its own recommendations for limiting the marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverages to children. Adopted in May 2010 by the 63rd World Health Assembly, the resolution intends “to guide efforts by Member States in designing and/or strengthening existing policies on food marketing communications to children.” The recommendations state that such policies should aim, via incremental or comprehensive approaches, “to reduce the impact on children of marketing of foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, or salt.” Specific measures would aim to eliminate all such food advertisements in “settings where children gather,” such as schools and playgrounds, and reduce “the impact of cross-border marketing.” Designed by governments acting as the key stakeholders, a comprehensive policy would also feature “clear definitions of sanctions and could include a system for reporting complaints.”