Children's Exposure to Fast Food Advertising: New Evidence on Attention and Content through Eye-Tracking


The aim of this study is to evaluate the extent to which self-regulation applied to fast food restaurants under the Children’s Food and beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) effectively limits exposure to unhealthy fast food and beverage products and promotes exposure to healthier products. We hypothesize that

  1. Fast food advertisements provide more screen time to branding through logos and the promotion of the unhealthy components relative to the promotion of healthy products of the advertised meals, and
  2. Children spend a disproportionate amount of time and attention on logos and unhealthy component which, in turn, affect recall, preferences and choices.

Based on data from the 2007-08 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 31% of children aged 2-11 consume fast food on a given day. Fast-food consumption among children is associated with higher total energy intake, poorer diet quality and higher body mass index. The adverse effects from fast food consumption on energy intake and nutrient intake such as saturated fat, sugar and sodium are greater for low- and middle-income children compared to their high-income counterparts. From 2003-09, exposure to fast food advertising on TV increased by 21% among 2-5 year olds and 31% among children aged 6-11 and is now the largest category of food-related advertising seen by children. Exposure to TV ads has been associated with increased consumption and body weight; therefore, effectively limiting ad exposure is important. This study will examine the pattern and duration of attention to components of fast food advertisements among a diverse racial and socioeconomic sample of 300 children aged 2-11 recruited through the University of Texas, Austin.

Fast food TV commercials will be coded to document proportion and total time devoted to healthy and unhealthy product promotion along with presence of logos. In order to be objectively measure children’s attention to fast food advertising, eye-tracking technology (ETT) will be used. ETT provides an unobtrusive, real time descriptive analysis of an individual’s point of gaze, sequence of gaze, and length of attention for each advertisement; in particular, indicating which parts of the advertisement gained attention, in what order, and for how long. Using ETT, we will document and test differences in the amount of time spent on healthy components, unhealthy components, and logos in TV commercials and fast food company web pages evaluated based on nutrition standards developed by the Interagency Working Group. Further, post advertisement recall of advertised components will be assessed. Children will also be randomized to assess post advertisement menu preferences. Study results will inform on whether the self-regulatory CFBAI effectively limits exposure or continues to brand products and disproportionately promote unhealthy components of fast food meals.

Research Partner(s)

Keryn E. Pasch, PhD, MPH, of the University of Texas at Austin

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About this grant

This study is related to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation projects Healthy Eating Research, based at the University of Minnesota, and Bridging the Gap, based at UIC IHRP.