It’s no secret that kids are defenseless against toy prizes in kids meals and ads that lure them in for greasy burgers, chicken nuggets and French fries. In the last few years, fast-food companies have been pledging to clean up their act when it comes to advertising to children.

But those promises are falling flat, according to a new study that found that fast-food ads aimed at children are still full of cartoon characters, movie references and enticements about toy giveaways.

“Advertisers use images of toy premiums, music, and movie characters to associate their product with excitement, energy, and fun,” said lead researcher Jim Sargent, co-director of the Cancer Control Program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center, in a press release.

“They emphasize recognition of the brand, the packaging and the restaurant, with little emphasis on the food products sold there. This heavy dose of branding serves to help a child recognize the storefront of a fast food chain from the backseat and pester their parents to stop for a meal that features the latest superhero.”

Since 2006, initiatives run by the Better Business Bureau have set marketing guidelines for quick-service restaurants about advertising to kids and they have encouraged companies to voluntarily sign on. For example, advertisements should feature only meals that meet certain nutritional standards. And ads should focus on the food, not on toys or movie characters.

To see whether companies were living up to those guidelines, Sargent and colleagues analyzed all national TV commercials for the top 25 quick-service restaurants that aired for a year in 2009 and 2010.

Ninety-nine percent of the ads aimed at children came from McDonald’s and Burger King, the researchers report today in the journal PLOS ONE. Subway accounted for the tiny remaining proportion. Nearly 80 percent of kids’ ads appeared on four cable networks: Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney XD and Nicktoons.

Commercials aimed at adults tended to focus on the food and its taste, price and size, the study found. Ads for kids, on the other hand, emphasized other stuff that kids care about.

Nearly 70 percent of the kid commercials, for example, featured toy giveaways. More than half mentioned major movies (compared to just 14 percent of the grown-up ads).

More than 40 percent of the ads for kids also showed restaurants from the outside, giving kids a visual hook to look out for from the back seat of a car. Only 12 percent of adult ads offered a street view.

Previous research has shown that advertisements have a strong influence on how much fast food kids eat and that children like food better when it’s linked to animated characters.

“We hope the study can encourage greater accountability in food advertising to children,” Sargent said in the press release. “To be effective, I think we need annual evaluations conducted by an agency like the Federal Trade Commission.”

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