In recent years, fast food giant McDonald’s has come under scrutiny as customers in the US turn to other options. This series, “Fast Food Reimagined,” explores what the sector is doing in order to keep customers coming back and increase sales.

While excess weight and obesity is a growing global concern, there has been more and more advertising and promotional effort encouraging the consumption of unhealthy food.

This marketing, which is often targeted at children and done online, is common. Our recent study examined the effects of online marketing communications on children’s intentions to eat unhealthy food. Social networking sites are a great place to find fast food advertisements. This can influence young people’s purchasing decisions, views on fast food, and eating habits.

A sample of 40 children from Australia were included in the qualitative study. Half (21%) of the children were boys and the average age was 14. The youngest child was 12 years old, and the oldest was 16. Although their parents were present at the interview, they agreed to not intervene in the conversation.

Growing problem

Over the past 30 years, obesity and excess weight has increased in Australia. Between 2011-2012, 60% of Australian adults were overweight and 25% fell into the obese category. More than 12 million Australians, which is three out of five adults, were obese or overweight in 2013. One in four Australian children was overweight or obese. Smoking and high blood pressure are the only ways to reduce excess weight and obesity.

Despite these challenges, the food industry has been able to use marketing communications to change attitudes and perceptions about unhealthy food.

Deals that are surprisingly affordable are attractive to young people with low incomes and teenagers. Sales promotions like coupons and discounts often only offer short-term benefits and are rarely effective for middle-aged adults.

Suppose a promotion is extended if a promotion is offered for a prolonged period of time.

Sales promotions can also make other brands less appealing to customers over time. Hungry Jack’s and McDonald’s have $1 frozen Coke campaigns that affect perceptions of frozen Coke’s monetary value. Consumers are less likely to purchase frozen Cokes that cost more than $1. Similar results can be seen with $5 pizzas and $2 burgers.

Social networks and their role

Nearly half (26 out of 30) of respondents said they had changed their eating habits due to being exposed to ads on social media sites.

Many people believe that fast food is unhealthy. It used to be so, but it is no longer true. You can see their advertisements. They are colorful, have many options, and they are cheap.

“I can’t resist it… I looked at the ads every day and decided to give these a try.”

Fast food is associated with fun and socialization among young people, it seems.

“I feel like these ads are where I belong. This is our life…where we can be ourselves and hang out.”

“This is about our culture. Young, active, and free. We are both children and adults. We are different.”

Peer pressure

Peer pressure has a strong relationship to eating habits, particularly during puberty, when there is often a shift in motivation from the home to the group. Peer pressure is a major factor in the choice of food that teens and young adults make.

Over 70% of teens will choose food based on the preferences of their friends. Marketing communications that promote fast food can have a domino effect on this group. Jack, Sara, and Park might go out together. Jack and Sara may order Big Burgers with extra cheese. Park is likely to order another Big Burger with more cheese if Jack and Sara do. Only 2.7% of over-40-year-olds choose fast food for the same reasons as their peers.

Fast food chains’ marketing campaigns can encourage unhealthy eating habits, it is clear. Peer influence is also important in shaping eating habits. The government’s intervention should focus on increasing customer awareness about health issues, self-efficacy, and perceived norms, as well as reducing the influence of marketing efforts that encourage unhealthy eating habits.