Knowing fast-food TV ads makes you more likely to be obese

April 30, 2012, 4:37 p.m.

Recognize this guy? According to a new study, people who recognize fast-food advertisements on TV are more likely to be obese. (Credit: Jesse Thorstad/Flickr Creative Commons)

This ought to make that fast-food jingle stuck in your head a little more sinister: People who recognize fast-food advertisements on TV are more likely to be obese.

That's according to new research that was presented Sunday at the annual meeting for the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) in Boston. Researchers found that greater familiarity with fast-food ads is associated with greater obesity in young people.

The study looked at 3,342 people between the ages of 15 and 23 and went down a list of questions of them: how much exercise they get, how much soda or sweet drinks they consume, how frequently they eat at fast-food restaurants, how many hours a day they spend in front of the TV and whether they snack while watching TV.

Also factored in were height, weight, age, gender, race, and socioeconomic status.

Participants were shown 20 still images from fast-food TV ads – with the brands digitally edited out – that aired in the previous year. They were asked if they remembered the ad, if they liked the ad and if they could name the brand. Researchers also peppered the 20 images with an additional 20 stills from alcohol ads.

Preliminary surveying had shown that 18 percent of the participants were overweight (i.e., had a body mass index between 25 and 29.9) and 15 percent were obese (i.e., had a BMI of 30 or higher). Researchers found that the percentage of obese youths was significantly higher among those who recognized more ads (17 percent) than those who recognized only a few (8.3 percent).

"We know that children and adolescents are highly exposed to fast-food restaurant advertising, particularly on television," said lead author Auden McClure in a statement. "This study links obesity in young people to familiarity with this advertising, suggesting that youth who are aware of and receptive to televised fast-food marketing may be at risk for health consequences."

Interestingly, frequent eating at fast-food restaurants was not associated with obesity. According to study co-author James Sargent, that means that "individuals who are more familiar with these ads may have food consumption patterns that include many types of high-calorie food brands, or they may be especially sensitive to visual cues to eat while watching TV," he said in the statement, adding that further research would be required to nail down exactly what the relationship is between fast-food ad familiarity and obesity.

Again, the study found that frequent consumption of fast food was not associated with increased obesity. Still, that's not going to be enough for some health advocacy groups.

Fast-food giant McDonald's has come under especially intense fire for targeting kids in its advertisements – while McDonald's chief executive Jim Skinner has said the franchise will continue to "leave the personal responsibility up to" customers, activist groups have said that McDonald's needs to stop what one organization calls "predatory marketing" habits.

"If you look at a lot of the studies, they really just highlight the fact that children's minds are still forming and for the most part they're unable to distinguish the persuasive intent of advertising," Sara Deon told OnCentral in March. Deon is the director of Corporate Accountability International's Value [the] Meal campaign, an effort to "hold the fast food industry accountable for a range of abuses that are making our children sick."

Deon continued: "Our point is it's the parents' job to decide what's right for the kids, and this campaign is really about a level playing field where parents don't have to compete with the marketing of a fast-food giant like McDonald's."

Even if the study didn't find a concrete association between the frequency of fast food consumption specifically and obesity, there's still something about it. McClure noted the alcohol ads that had been shown to participants among the 20 fast-food ads.

"A similar association with obesity was not found for familiarity with televised alcohol ads, suggesting that the relationship was specific to fast-food advertising content," said McClure. "After accounting for overall TV time, ad familiarity was still linked with obesity, suggesting that this finding is not simply due to increased sedentary time or an effect of TV programming."

Photo by Jesse Thorstad via Flickr Creative Commons.

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