The world’s largest fast food company uses more child-targeted ads on their Instagram accounts in lower-middle income countries, increasing their exposure to negative health outcomes.
Fast food giant McDonald’s appears to be focusing more on children in lower-and-middle income countries, an analysis of the franchise’s social media marketing has revealed.
Published in the open access journal BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health, the study warns that as social media advertising by fast food companies like McDonald’s increase globally, so will exposure to poor diet and negative health outcomes.
McDonalds, the largest fast food company in the world, has over 14,000 restaurants in the US and nearly 22,000 outside the US.
The study analysed marketing posts on McDonald’s Instagram account in 15 countries where it operates: USA, Australia, UK, Canada, UAE, Portugal, and Panama (high-income); Romania, Lebanon, Malaysia, Brazil, and South Africa (upper-middle income); Indonesia, Egypt, and India (lower-middle income).
Those 15 accounts maintained a total of 10 million followers and generated 3.9 million likes, 164,816 comments, and 38.2 million video views.
From the 849 marketing posts that were analysed, McDonald’s posted 154 percent more posts in lower-middle-income countries (LMICs) than it did in higher income (HICs) ones, or an average of 108 posts compared with 43 during a four-month monitoring period that began in April 2020.
The three lower-middle income countries had more posts (324) than the five upper-middle income countries (227) and the seven high income countries (298). Children-targeted posts were more common in LMICs (22 percent) versus in HICs (12 percent).
McDonald’s also offered more special price promotions and free giveaways on accounts in LMICs (40 percent) compared with HICs (14 percent).
“Price is a key component of a marketing mix and is often used to aid consumer purchases, particularly among lower income communities who may use price as a decision point,” the study notes.
Given fast food’s impact on nutrition and negative health outcomes, the international growth of fast food companies – especially in LMICs – may “exacerbate the double healthcare and economic burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases,” the study warns.
Furthermore, fast food advertisements play an influential role in persuading individuals to consume fast foods, particularly through brand characters marketed to children.
Social media ads are an emerging area of concern, with data indicating the majority of food and beverage ads on platforms like Instagram tend to be for energy-dense and nutritionally poor products.
The paper’s authors conclude saying there is a growing need to “address the globalisation of food and beverage marketing in developing countries that may experience higher burdens of poor diet, obesity and related illnesses.”
While the study is an observational one, it adds to a growing literature of how fast food companies disproportionately target children and young adolescents, and highlights the possible relationship between child-targeted marketing techniques on social media and lower-income countries.
“This is an important and timely analysis, because we are beginning to gain insights into ‘whole-systems’ determinants of food choices, which include food production, food supply, and the food environment,” said Sumantra Ray, executive director of the NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health.
“Advertising and public health messaging can modify all these factors, especially the food environment, which in turn can influence and change dietary food patterns., And this study offers early but crucial insights into the impact of advertising, a relatively neglected area of nutritional research.”