McDonald’s Instagram ad appears to target low-income children

key takeaways

  • A new study compares McDonald’s Instagram posts in 15 countries of different economic status.
  • The researchers found that McDonald’s shares more posts in low-income countries than in high-income countries.
  • Posts in low-income countries are more aimed at children and are associated with price promotions. Posts from high-income countries focus more on healthy habits than posts from low-income countries.

With more than 36,000 locations worldwide, McDonald’s is one of the largest fast food chains in the world. In recent years, the franchise’s reach has grown with the social media platforms it has joined.

However, when the researchers set out to compare the company’s marketing strategies in economically diverse countries, they found that McDonald’s may be using its social media presence to target children in low-income countries.

According to published in BMJ Nutritional Prevention and Health, McDonald’s publishes more Instagram posts in low- and middle-income countries than in high-income countries — 154% more, to be exact.

Dr. Omni Cassidy, an assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine/Langer Health and a co-author of the study, told VigorTip that the researchers knew it was “significant” given McDonald’s global reach. Better understand their marketing strategies. ”

How much fast food do American kids eat?

what the researchers did

The researchers randomly selected official McDonald’s Instagram accounts from 15 countries: 7 from high-income countries, 5 from upper-middle-income countries, and 3 from lower-middle-income countries. The researchers then compared posts shared on each Instagram account between September 2019 and December 2019.

Omni Dr. Cassidy

It’s critical that fast food companies like McDonald’s take responsibility for their role in creating an unhealthy food environment.

— Omni Cassidy, Ph.D.

Cassidy said the researchers found that “McDonald’s used more child-targeted marketing themes and price promotions in low- and middle-income countries than in high-income countries.”

McDonald’s posts on healthier places also vary. According to Cassidy, the company “used more health promotion themes in high-income countries than in lower-middle- and upper-middle-income countries.”

The findings did not surprise the researchers. The findings, Cassidy said, “support what we already suspected. McDonald’s has found unique ways to target adults and children in developing countries with product advertising that can lead to poor eating habits and disease.”

“It’s critical that fast food companies like McDonald’s take responsibility for their role in creating an unhealthy food environment,” Cassidy said.

Junk Food Advertising and Childhood Obesity

Study Limitations

The study was observational, meaning its results could not prove cause and effect. The researchers also only looked at Instagram accounts in 15 countries, and didn’t look at the same number of accounts for each income type.

Cassidy added that the study did not focus on “the effect of social media advertising on children’s eating behavior, so we cannot draw any conclusions about the effect based on this study.”

Nonetheless, Cassidy said, based on previous research, “we know that the majority of advertisements are for foods and beverages high in fat, sugar and salt. Studies have shown that these advertisements influence food/drink preference, parental demand and seeing more unhealthy foods in dietary advertisements and more whole foods.”

McDonald’s Social Media

The 15 McDonald’s Instagram accounts the researchers looked at in the study had 10 million users. During the 4-month study period, the 15 accounts shared a total of 849 posts.

12% of posts in high-income countries are directed at children, while 22% in low-income countries are directed at children.

Information about pricing and health also varies from country to country. Healthy habits were discussed in 5% of high-income county jobs, but only in 3% of upper-middle-income countries and 2.5% of lower-middle-income countries.

Deals in low-income countries were also highlighted more frequently: 21.6% of posts in these countries included freebies, while only 6% of posts in high-income countries offered similar promotions.

The study adds to a growing body of evidence that fast-food companies target ads in rural, low-income and black communities.

While the researchers weren’t surprised that McDonald’s focused its healthy-habit ads in high-income countries, they were surprised by how targeted the ads were.

“One of the things we found particularly interesting was how companies chose to highlight cultural aspects in certain countries and not others,” Cassidy said. For example, a Canadian ad used the Toronto Raptors, and Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates shared a halal-certified food ad.

Cassidy added, “The ability of companies to understand the communities they’re targeting is very complex.”

I try to quit social media.It didn’t drastically change my health

Why social media advertising is different

McDonald’s is no stranger to child-focused marketing. Its mascot Ronald McDonald first appeared in 1963. The famous Happy Meal appeared as early as 1979. The company runs regular TV commercials and cross-promotions with children’s brands such as Disney, Barbie and Hot Wheels.

The strategies appear to be working: A 2017 study found that kid-targeted TV ads for McDonald’s, Subway and Wendy’s were associated with increased fast food intake among preschoolers.

Cathy Monaghan

The targeted nature of digital marketing means that every ad can be tailored to appeal to every child.

— Cathy Monaghan

Today, many experts find social media advertising even more worrisome. Cathy Monaghan, senior paediatric nutritionist and founder of, told VigorTip, “The targeted nature of digital marketing means that every ad can appeal to every child based on age, interests, mood, place of residence and more.” By comparison , “The toys in children’s meals or TV commercials are not targeted in this particular way.”

According to 2020 reviews, Instagram restricts ads related to tobacco, gambling, weight loss and alcohol. However, like other social media platforms, Instagram does not restrict ads related to unhealthy foods.

Can junk food cause IBD?

That said, trying to protect kids from marketing doesn’t mean fast food is off-limits — in moderation, these foods can be a part of their lives.

“All foods can be enjoyed in a healthy diet,” Monaghan said. “That’s not to say kids should never eat fast food – the problem is that targeted fast food marketing can interfere with kids’ ‘choice’ – especially when companies use different digital marketing strategies for different income families/countries.”

Still, the images and other media that kids see online can influence how they think and feel about food. “Social media food ads — especially those promoting HFSS (high fat, sugar and salt) food and [that are] Directly targeting children and adolescents – has been shown to directly impact their ability to make healthy food choices. ”

Cathy Monaghan

Not that kids shouldn’t eat fast food — the problem is that targeted fast food marketing interferes with kids’ “choice.”

— Cathy Monaghan

The World Health Organization (WHO) lists energy-dense foods (high in sugar and fat) as a cause of obesity. Data from the World Health Organization shows that globally “the prevalence of overweight and obesity among children and adolescents aged 5-19 has risen sharply from 4% in 1975 to more than 18% in 2016.”

Overview of childhood obesity

Will fast food marketing change?

The new research may have shed light on some of McDonald’s social marketing strategies, but what happens next is up to consumers. Cassidy thinks people will pay attention to the data — especially if public health professionals share the studies with their patients.

The researchers hope the study will encourage McDonald’s and other fast food companies to think about how their marketing strategies can negatively impact health outcomes; Cassidy said this step is “important for countries that must address the dual burden of communicable and non-communicable chronic diseases.” important.”

Ultimately, public health policies may be needed to help consumers learn how to recognize and respond to targeted social media advertising.

For example, Cassidy suggested that the data could be used to develop “prevention and intervention programs that help adults and children identify these ads and make food choices that are more in line with their own hunger signals, personal values, and culture.”

Still, such education may prove to be a challenge. As Cassidy points out, “Digital and social media ads are designed to look like ‘normal’ Instagram posts, which can make it difficult for adults, children and even parents to recognize ads when they see them.”

what does this mean to you

Any food, including fast food, can be enjoyed in moderation by children and adults. However, research is beginning to show that sophisticated digital marketing strategies – many of which are aimed at children – could have an “unprecedented impact” on consumer choice.

Ask the experts: Should teenage girls stop using Instagram?