A new study found that McDonald's posts more kid-focused and price promotion Instagram ads in low-income countries than in high-income countries. Key TakeawaysA new study compared McDonald's Instagram posts in 15 countries of different economic statuses.The researchers found that McDonald's shared more posts in low-income countries than in high-income countries.Posts in low-income
With more than 36,000 locations globally, McDonald’s is one of the largest fast-food chains in the world. In recent years, the franchise's influence has only grown as its joined social media platforms.
However, when researchers set out to compare the company’s marketing strategies across economically diverse countries, they found that McDonald’s might be using its social media presence to target children in low-income countries.
According to the study, which was published in BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health, McDonald's posts to Instagram more in lower-middle-income countries than in higher-income countries—154% more, to be exact.
Omni Cassidy, Ph.D., an assistant professor with the Department of Population Health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine/Langone Health and a co-author of the study, told Verywell that considering McDonald's global reach, the researchers knew it was "important to better understand their marketing strategies."
The researchers randomly selected official McDonald’s Instagram accounts from 15 countries: 7 from high-income countries, 5 from middle-upper-income, and 3 from lower-middle-income. Then, the researchers compared the posts shared on each of the Instagram accounts from September to December 2019.
It is critically important that fast-food companies, like McDonald’s, take responsibility for their role in creating an unhealthy food environment.
Cassidy said that the researchers found that "McDonald’s used more child-targeted marketing themes and price promotions in lower-middle-income countries compared to higher-income countries."
Where McDonald's posts took a healthier spin also varied. According to Cassidy, the company "used more health promotion themes in higher-income countries compared to lower-middle- and upper-middle-income countries."
The results of the study didn't surprise the researchers. Cassidy said that the findings "support what we have already suspected. McDonald’s finds unique ways to target adults and kids in developing countries with ads for products that could lead to poor eating habits and resulting illnesses."
Cassidy said that "it is critically important that fast-food companies, like McDonald’s, take responsibility for their role in creating an unhealthy food environment."
The study was observational, which means that its results cannot prove there is a cause-and-effect relationship. The researchers also only studied Instagram accounts in 15 countries and did not look at the same number of accounts for each income type.
Cassidy added that the study did not look at "the impact of social media ads on eating behaviors in kids, so we are not able to make any conclusions on the impact based on this study."
Still, Cassidy said that based on prior research, "we know that most ads are for foods and drinks high in fat, sugar, and salt. And the research shows that these ads can influence food/drink preferences, requests to parents, and eating more of the unhealthy foods seen on the ads and more food overall."
The 15 McDonald's Instagram accounts that the researchers looked at in the study have a collective following of 10 million users. Over the 4 month study period, the 15 accounts shared a total of 849 posts.
12% of the posts in high-income countries targeted children compared to 22% of the posts in low-income countries.
Messaging about pricing and health also varied across the different countries. Healthy habits were discussed in 5% of the high-income county posts but only in 3% of upper-middle-income countries, and 2.5% in lower-middle-income countries.
Deals were also highlighted more often in low-income countries: 21.6% of the posts in these countries included free giveaways while just 6% of the posts in high-income countries offered a similar promotion.
The study adds to a growing body of evidence showing that fast-food companies target ads in rural, low-income, and Black neighborhoods.
While the researchers didn't find it surprising that McDonald's focused its healthy-habits ads in high-income countries, they were surprised by how targeted the ads were.
"One thing we found particularly interesting was how companies chose to highlight cultural aspects in some countries, but not others," said Cassidy. For example, the Toronto Raptors were used for Canadian ads and Halal-certified food ads were shared in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.
Cassidy added that the "companies’ ability to understand the communities they are targeting is quite sophisticated."
McDonald's is no stranger to child-focused marketing. Its mascot, Ronald McDonald, first appeared in 1963. The famous Happy Meal has been around since 1979. The company regularly airs TV ads and cross-promotes with kid-focused brands like Disney, Barbie, and Hot Wheels.
These tactics seem to work: A 2017 study found that child-targeted TV ads from McDonald’s, Subway, and Wendy’s was associated with a higher fast-food intake among preschool-aged children.
The targeted nature of digital marketing means that each ad can be adapted to appeal to each child.
Today, many experts find social media ads even more concerning. Cathy Monaghan, a senior pediatric dietitian, and founder of Weaning.ie, told Verywell that "the targeted nature of digital marketing means that each ad can be adapted to appeal to each child based on age, interests, emotions, place of residence, etc." By contrast, "toys in kid’s meals or TV ads are not targeted in such a specific way."
According to a 2020 review, Instagram restricted ads related to tobacco, gambling, weight loss, and alcohol. However, like other social media platforms, Instagram does not restrict ads that are related to unhealthy foods.
That said, trying to shield kids from marketing is not to say that fast food is off-limits—in moderation, these foods can be part of their lives.
"All foods can be enjoyed in a healthy diet," said Monaghan. "It is not that kids should never eat fast food—the problem is that targeted fast-food marketing interferes with the 'choice' a child has - particularly if companies are using different digital marketing strategies for different income families/countries."
Still, the images and other media that kids see online can still influence how they think and feel about food. Monaghan said that "social media food ads—particularly those promoting HFSS (high in fat, sugar, and salt) foods and [that are] aimed directly at children and teens—have been shown to directly interfere with their ability to make health-benefiting food choices."
It is not that kids should never eat fast food—the problem is that targeted fast-food marketing interferes with the 'choice' a child has.
The World Health Organization (WHO) cites energy-dense foods (which are high in sugar and fat) as a cause of obesity. Data from the WHO shows that the worldwide "prevalence of overweight and obesity among children and adolescents aged 5-19 has risen dramatically from just 4% in 1975 to just over 18% in 2016."
The new study may have pulled back the curtain on some of McDonald's social marketing strategies, but what happens next is up to consumers. Cassidy thinks that people will pay attention to the data—especially if public health professionals share the studies with their patients.
The researchers hope that the study will encourage McDonald's and other fast-food companies to think about how their marketing strategies could be negatively impacting health outcomes; a step that Cassidy said "is critically important in countries that must address the double burden of both infectious diseases and non-infectious, chronic diseases."
Ultimately, public health policies may need to be created to help consumers learn how to recognize and respond to targeted social media ads.
For example, Cassidy suggested that the data could be used to develop "prevention and intervention programs that will help adults and children recognize these ads and make food choices that are more aligned with their own hunger signals, personal values, and culture."
Still, such education could prove to be a challenge. As Cassidy pointed out, "digital and social media ads are designed to look like 'normal' Instagram posts, which can make it hard for adults, children, and even parents to recognize when they are seeing an ad."
Any food, including fast-food, can be enjoyed in moderation by kids and adults. However, research is starting to show that sophisticated digital marketing strategies—many of which are targeted at kids—may have "unprecedented effects" on consumers' choices.