McDonald’s disproportionately targeted children in poorer countries with social media ads, a study finds.
On 15 official McDonald’s Instagram accounts around the world, 14.5% and 12.4% of posts from September to December 2019 targeted young app users in upper middle-income and higher-income countries, respectively, as they included a photo of a child or adolescent.
By comparison, 22.0% of posts in this way were targeted at minors in lower-middle-income countries, Omni Cassidy, PhD, of the NYU School of Global Public Health in New York City, and colleagues reported in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health.
Children and adolescents gain weight during the COVID-19 pandemic; the estimated proportion of U.S. children who are obese increased from 19.3% in August 2019 to 22.4% in August 2020, according to CDC estimates.
McDonald’s is the largest fast food chain in the world, operating in 118 countries with nearly 40,000 restaurants worldwide. McDonald’s has official Instagram accounts in 62 countries, according to Cassidy’s group.
“Exposure to fast food ads through social media may put vulnerable groups — particularly those in lower-income countries — at increased risk for obesity and diet-related chronic disease,” the study authors wrote. “By targeting certain subgroups through child-directed ads and price promotions, McDonald’s social media ads can exacerbate health problems in the world’s most vulnerable countries.”
Cassidy and colleagues found that promotion of healthy habits was generally low on McDonald’s country-specific Instagram accounts, although accounts for wealthier countries were more likely to portray healthy habits. Previous studies have also shown that fast food companies advertise healthier products in wealthier countries than in lower-income countries, the authors said.
On Instagram, McDonald’s marketing tactics for lower-middle-income countries included more frequent posts, free giveaways, and price promotions.
In contrast, the company relied more on the endorsement of celebrities and influencers in wealthier countries. However, this finding may be biased by the high use of celebrity endorsements in South Africa in particular, where 93.3% of posts contained such endorsement, the study authors said.
The current study looked at 849 posts from McDonald’s Instagram ads from September to December 2019 for 15 countries. The countries are grouped according to the World Bank classifications in 2019:
Higher Income Countries: USA, Australia, Canada, UK, United Arab Emirates, Portugal and Panama Upper Middle Income Countries: Romania, Lebanon, Malaysia, Brazil and South AfricaLower Middle Income Countries: Indonesia, Egypt and India
Instagram accounts averaged 2.1 million followers each for those targeting lower-middle-income countries, 3.5 million for those targeting upper-middle-income countries, and 4.4 million for those targeting higher-income countries.
The survey sample represented approximately 25% of all McDonald’s official Instagram accounts. As such, Cassidy and colleagues acknowledged that a major limitation of their study was uneven sampling, meaning the data may not be extrapolated to represent all countries with McDonald’s.
They also noted that McDonald’s chains operate differently in different countries.
Lei Lei Wu is a news intern for Medpage Today. She is based in New Jersey. To follow
This study was funded by grants from the NIH.
The authors have reported no disclosures.