Beyond Advertising: In-home Promotion of ‘Fast Food’

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Beyond Advertising: In-home Promotion of ‘Fast Food’

Lynne Eagle

Professor of Marketing

Bristol Business School

University of the West of England

Frenchay Campus

Coldharbour Lane


BS16  1QY

Ross Brennan

Reader in Marketing

Middlesex University Business School

The Burroughs




Lynne Eagle is Professor of Marketing at Bristol Business School where her research interests centre on the impact of marketing communication activity on society and implications for public policy decisions. The specific focus is on marketing communication effects and effectiveness in relation to social marketing and health promotional activity.

Ross Brennan is Reader in Marketing at Middlesex University Business School. His research interests are in business-to-business marketing, strategic marketing, and social marketing.

Beyond Advertising: In-home Promotion of ‘Fast Food’



This paper discusses the range of potential influences on children’s food choices, suggesting that recent restrictions on advertising of some foods may not be as effective as expected. Home-delivered food promotional materials are used to illustrate the types of promotional activity which are not covered by recent regulatory actions.

Methodology / Approach

All food promotional leaflets and flyers delivered to households over a four month period were analysed in terms of their overall content and whether healthy options were included in the content or in special promotional offers.


Ninety percent of the material featured foods whose advertising would potentially be restricted if it were placed in media for which regulations were tightened in early 2007. Few included healthy options in menus – and none offered these as part of their special promotions.

Research limitations / implications

Material was collected from only one area of a large English city; however it is reasonable to assume that the type of material received is broadly representative of the material likely to be distributed across the UK and possibly other countries as well.

Practical implications

Increased restriction of advertising of some types of food products does not address the myriad influences on children’s food choices. If the restrictions fail to deliver the expected benefits, further restrictions are likely to follow, but concentrating on one potential factor in isolation while failing to consider the wide range of influences on food choices means that even tighter restrictions are unlikely to achieve the intended results. Policy makers should consider the wider environmental factors which may influence food choices, and the development of health promotion strategies that reflect a more holistic and integrated approach than is currently occurring.

Originality / value

There are few studies of the potential impact of factors other than advertising. The findings of this study suggest that lobbyists, policy makers and advertisers alike should take a more holistic view of potential influences on dietary choice.

Keywords Advertising, Children, Food products.

Paper type Research paper

Introduction and background

There is a clear consensus that obesity is linked to long-term, serious health problems (Ahmad 1997; Danner and Molony 2002; Homer and Simpson 2007). Governments have taken regulatory action in several countries to try to reduce obesity rates, particularly among children. (Broadcasting Commission of Ireland 2004; OFCOM 2006). Much of this action has been designed to reduce the advertising of foods deemed to be of low nutritional value and potentially damaging to health. Lobbyists and policy makers alike have largely ignored the impact of the wider environment and the range of explicit and implicit signals to which children – and their families – are exposed (Livingstone 2005). In an increasingly acrimonious debate, the efficacy of advertising restrictions has been called into question, with some arguing that the influence of advertising is relatively small (Livingstone 2006; Royal Society of Medicine 2004).

An example of recent regulatory actions that have been taken in the UK to restrict the amount and type of food advertising to which children are exposed is shown in the following quotation from an OFCOM press release; similar restrictions have been introduced, or are under consideration in other countries (Better Business Bureau 2006; Broadcasting Commission of Ireland 2004).

“Ofcom has concluded it is appropriate and necessary to adopt restrictions intended to reduce significantly the exposure of children under 16 to HFSS* advertising.

Scheduling restrictions

In light of concerns raised in the course of the consultation, the scheduling restrictions will now come into effect on a phased basis for all channels, as follows:

• From 1 April 2007, HFSS advertisements will not be permitted in or around programmes made for children (including pre-school children), or in or around programmes that are likely to be of particular appeal to children aged 4-9; and

• From 1 January 2008, HFSS advertisements will not be permitted in or around programmes made for children (including pre-school children), or in or around programmes that are likely to be of particular appeal to children aged 4-15.

As set out in the November Statement, children’s channels will be allowed a graduated phase-in period, with full implementation required by the end of December 2008”.

(OFCOM 2006) *HFSS: foods high in fat, salt or sugar

The UK regulatory action, while well intentioned, has been criticised for being excessive (Institute of Practitioners of Advertising 2007), for not going far enough (Which? Magazine 2006) and for being potentially ineffective (Royal Society of Medicine 2004). Restricting advertising content on television ignores the way in which food is portrayed within television programme content itself. Two studies, conducted in very different markets some twenty years apart have shown that in the USA (Kaufman 1980) and in New Zealand (Hawkins et al. 2004), advertisements portrayed food more responsibly than programmes with high levels of child viewers. However, regulatory authorities appear to have given no consideration to the effects that programme content may have in shaping or reinforcing food preferences.

Also ignored in this debate is the impact of new and emerging hybrid media forms, primarily via electronic media such as the Internet. These activities, such as games with embedded advertising content (‘advergames’) represent an amalgam of entertainment and persuasion (Grigorovici and Constantin 2004; Shrum 2004). Children may be vulnerable to persuasive messages in this type of medium because of limited cognitive skill development which inhibits their ability to recognise the persuasive intent (Moore 2004). There is evidence that they may play these games 100 or more times (Gunn 2001). In addition, playing electronic games may be part of social identity formation through shared knowledge and interpretation in a similar way to the way television is used (Ritson and Elliott 1999). We are unable to locate any studies that have examined the impact of electronic media on social identity, nor the way that non-broadcast media forms affect social identity.

While new media forms such as advergames are as yet unregulated (Dahl et al. 2006), advertising in non-broadcast media has received some recent attention. The UK Committee of Advertising Practice announced in early 2007 that, in addition to the rules covering broadcast media announced by OFCOM, tighter restrictions would also be applied to non-broadcast advertising with effect from 1 July 2007. These regulations cover print, poster and cinema advertising as well as sales promotions and some direct marketing activity if it involves the use of personal data. Their main purpose is to ensure that “marketing communications should not condone or encourage poor nutritional habits or an unhealthy lifestyle in children” (Committee of Advertising Practice 2007: 1). These regulations are intended to apply to leaflet advertising by restaurant and fast food outlets.

Efforts to promote health eating practices to children are hampered by several factors. Firstly, if healthy eating is not reinforced in the home, the message may be lost (Hawkins et al. 2006). Secondly, the media themselves may contradict the preferred messages of the regulatory authorities. “News values can conflict with science, media and public health agendas” (Kline 2006: 50)

For example, the UK has seen mainstream television programmes aimed at improving school meals and thus also improving children’s overall diets. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has achieved considerable success, including an official endorsement and awards, in his campaign to improve British school meals (Beckett 2006). However, not all of the media have embraced his efforts, as the following example from a mass circulation British daily newspaper (the ‘Daily Mail’ with a circulation of over 2.3 million copies a day and over five million readers) reveals. This newspaper has a readership profile that is broadly representative of the UK population – with nearly an equal number of men and women and substantial readership from all social grades (Newspaper Marketing Agency 2006).

Four extremely hostile editorials were run criticising the impact of Oliver’s campaign:

  • Saturday September 16, p. 9 “Mothers defy Jamie to deliver junk food to the playground fence”

  • Sunday September 24, p. 29 “How Jamie and the school meal fascists turn children into junk food addicts”

  • Wednesday October 11, p. 30 Why I don’t worship Saint Jamie”

  • Saturday October 14, p. 31 “Boy banished over ‘unhealthy’ lunch” (child was not allowed to eat lunch that did not conform to recommended guidelines in front of his friends – was taken to the headmaster’s office).

Children’s knowledge of nutritional information and labelling is unsophisticated (Neeley and Petricone 2006); children between the ages of seven and eleven are unable to connect information gained in class to situations such as purchase choices without prompting or reminders of their prior learning, and children under the age of seven are unable to apply prior learning even when prompted (John 1999; Moses and Baldwin 2005; Neeley and Schumann 2004). When children are presented with fast food menus, they are unlikely to be able to make decisions based on prior learning of healthy eating principles, particularly if these are not reinforced by parents. Despite what we know about the manner in which children learn and apply their learning, some lobbyists argue that that companies such as McDonald’s should limit the provision of free gifts with Happy Meals since this will encourage children to choose healthier alternatives (Doonar 2004). This looks more like wishful thinking than applied, evidence-based social science.

To illustrate the potential impact of one form of potentially persuasive communication that is not subject to the same restrictions as television advertising, an analysis of the content of home delivered food promotional material was undertaken.

Method and results

All leaflets, flyers and pamphlets or menu cards distributed to homes in one area of north-west London were collected over the period 1 December 2006 – 31 March 2007. A total of 30 pieces of material were obtained, 90% of which related to foods whose advertising would potentially be restricted if it were placed on television, as shown in Table 1. Only three potentially healthy options were received, with the overwhelming number of fast food leaflets concerning pizza outlets.

(Insert Table 1 about here)

The three flyers for potentially healthy food options were all very general in scope and did not offer specific food items, as shown in Table 2.

(Insert Table 2 about here)

Tables 3 and 4 summarise the type of meals promoted for the remaining 27 flyers. None of these explicitly targets children, so that they would not be in breach of existing, or likely future, regulations. There is some evidence of targeting at children via parents –for example “family fare” (TGF Pizza, which features a photo of two children eating large slices of pizza – with parents also eating pizza in the background of the photo) and “family feast” or family specials” (Bella Pizza, Choppaan Pizza and Kebab, Pizzaria which do not include people in their photos). Other advertisers feature options such as “variety bucket” (4 in One), “party feasts” or “party specials” (4 in One and Pukka Pizza, Pizzaria) but do not make explicit reference, either in the text or in the illustrations to children as potential consumers of the products.

The McDonald’s leaflet concentrated on price discounts, while many of the other leaflets provided offers of free additional products, such as a 1.5 litre bottle of Coca-Cola (for example, Kiplings), buy-one-get-one-free deals (for example, Pizza Hi) or ‘bundles’ of products such as pizza plus garlic bread plus soft drink (for example, TGF Pizza and Pizza GoGo) or upgrades from medium to large pizzas for £1.55 (Pizza ‘r’ Us). This latter strategy in particular would presumably not be intended to encourage overeating but simply to improve sales, but may inadvertently have that effect with some customers (Chandon and Wansink 2007).

There is evidence that consumers are more reluctant to subtract items from enhanced menu offerings than to voluntarily add items to a basic menu item, resulting in consumption of larger amounts of food than would be either intended or desirable (Levin et al. 2002). Similarly, Chandon and Wansink (2007) found in a review of several studies that, firstly, the majority of consumers simply fail to understand that larger portions or combinations of foods to make a large meal means more calories consumed, and, secondly, that calorie underestimation increases with meal size.

Salads do not feature as an explicit menu item for either the Chinese or Indian menus; only one offered water as a menu option. Ten of the fourteen pizza companies offered at least one salad as part of the normal menu, however, only one offered salad as part of their special offers and only four offered an alternative to soft drinks (water) as part of the normal menu, none offered this as part of the special offers.

None of the leaflets featured any form of nutritional information. Mandatory provision of nutritional information by restaurants has been suggested, particularly in the USA, with the intention of forcing multi-outlet chains to provide this (Bates and Huggins 2005). However, most of the leaflets in this analysis were from small, local outlets who would not be covered if provisions such as this were implemented. In any case the effectiveness of providing nutritional information is questionable since consumers seem to have poor understanding of such information (Anonymous 2006; Joppen 2005), so that it is likely that they may have difficulty in making healthy choices even with this information. Over 70% of Americans appear not to know the recommended daily calorie intake, and 80% do not know the maximum daily amounts of fat, carbohydrates or sodium they should consume, (Anonymous 2006). Similar levels of ignorance have also been found among UK university students (Brennan et al. 2008), therefore it is likely that many consumers would also not realise that many of the fast foods promoted in these leaflets are sufficiently high in fats and sodium as to be considered unhealthy food choices (Jacobson 2005).

Industry publications acknowledge recommendations from nutritionists that smaller portions should be readily available (Kramer 2006), yet there is little evidence of this in the leaflets. Flame Pizza and Kebab offer a “kids meal” of chicken nuggets, chips and a can of (unspecified) drink for £1.99, and McDonald’s offer Happy Meals for children. The Jun Peking restaurant did provide for half price children’s meals – but only for their “eat as much as you like” promotion noted in Table 3.

(Insert Table 3 about here)

(Insert Table 4 about here)

McDonald’s is perceived to provide relatively unhealthy meals (Doonar 2004; Primack 2004), but simple comparisons with other common fast food types suggests that McDonald’s products are no worse than many others. It is difficult to provide more than an indicative comparison of food items across the range of menus presented, particularly in view of the number of special offers provided which bundle a range of foods together. However, Table 5 provides a comparison of the calories contained in typical Chinese, Indian and pizza menu items such as those featured in the leaflets and shows that several menu items contain considerably more calories than the McDonald’s products featured.

(Insert Table 5 about here)

McDonald’s themselves readily provide comparative data on the calories contained in their children’s meal options, as shown in Table 6. The fact that there was no nutritional information on the single McDonald’s menu leaflet received is rather surprising. The company has gained considerable media coverage for its global health initiatives and the provision of nutritional data on packaging and in its restaurants, something that has been readily provided for over fifteen years but which has only recently come into sharper focus as part of the obesity debate (Anonymous 2005; Doonar 2004; Garber 2005).

(Insert Table 6 about here)

So far we have concentrated on the analysis of fast food leaflets distributed by “door drop marketing”. However, the fast food outlets themselves are likely to have a direct effect on local food consumption. The local food environment is known to influence residents’ diets (Jeffery and French 1998; Morland et al. 2002). The area in which the door drop leaflets were collected is a typical British metropolitan neighbourhood. There are three schools - one high school and two primary schools - in this neighbourhood. Within five minutes walk of these schools, and major bus stops used by school students, are several fast food outlets, two of which had distributed leaflets that were included in the analysis and which provided large window displays featuring some of the special deals listed in the leaflets. Numerous other food provision outlets are also in the neighbourhood, as shown in Table 7; similar numbers and types of outlets are located within another five minutes walk in either direction from these stores. The proprietor of the food store that does not stock fruit and vegetables advised the researchers that these products had been stocked in the past, but that there was no demand for them and so they were no longer stocked. According to the proprietor of this outlet (which is immediately adjacent to the high school) 30% of his turnover comes from the school’s pupils before and after classes. None of these organisations are doing anything contrary to current legislative or regulatory provisions.

(Insert Table 7 about here)

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