Fast food burger chain McDonald’s is targeting poor kids living in developing countries, new research discovered.
The US-based franchise is focusing social media posts on lower-middle income rather than richer nations, scientists found.
They feature price promotions and child-friendly marketing – worsening existing healthcare issues in vulnerable populations, said researchers.
Eating too much junk food increases the risk of obesity and chronic diseases.
The findings are based on an analysis of the company’s use of Instagram in 15 countries with varying wealth.
They ranged from the UK – classed as high income – to South Africa, which was categorised as upper-middle income and India – lower-middle income.
Lead author Dr Omni Cassidy, of the University of New York, said: “Price is a key component of a marketing mix.
“It is often used to aid consumer purchases, particularly among lower income communities who may use price as a decision point.
“As social media use grows, fast food companies’ social media ads may have unprecedented effects on dietary options, especially in lower-income countries.
“By targeting certain subsets through child-targeted ads and price promotions, McDonald’s’ social media ads may exacerbate healthcare issues in the most vulnerable countries in the world.”
McDonald’s is the world’s biggest fast food company – operating in 101 countries.
It has 1,300 restaurants in the UK, more than 14,000 in the US and nearly 22,000 in other countries.
Cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and some cancers all have causes in excessive fast food consumption.
The first study of its kind is based on all the screenshots McDonald’s posted from September to December 2019.
The number of followers, ‘likes’, ‘comments’ and video views associated with each Instagram account were counted in April 2020.
Other countries included were the US, Australia, Canada, UAE, Portugal and Panama (high income); Romania, Lebanon, Malaysia, and Brazil (upper-middle income); Indonesia and Egypt (lower-middle income).
The 15 accounts maintained a total of 10 million followers and generated 3.9 million ‘likes’, 164,816 comments, and 38.2 million video views.
A total of 849 marketing posts were identified. McDonald’s posted 154% more in lower middle-income countries.
There was an average of 108 posts compared with 43 during the four month monitoring period.
The three lower-middle income countries had more posts than the five upper-middle income countries (324 vs 227) and the seven high income countries (298).
Child friendly posts were more common in lower-middle income countries than in high income ones.
Around 1 in 8 (12%) of the posts in high income countries included child friendly posts compared with around 1 in 5 (22%) in lower-middle income countries.
The company’s Instagram accounts in high income countries depicted more healthy habits (14.5%) than those of upper-middle income countries (6.3%) or those of lower-middle income countries (8. 25%).
And just one in seven (14%) of the posts in high income countries included price promotions and free give-aways compared with 40% in lower-middle income countries.
Fast food ads have an influential role in persuading people to eat the products.
There is a growing need to tackle the globalisation of food and drink marketing in developing countries that may experience higher levels of poor diet, obesity and related illnesses, added the researchers.
Professor Sumantra Ray, executive director of the NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health, a Cambridge based think tank, added: “This is an important and timely analysis.
“We are beginning to gain insights into ‘whole systems’ determinants of food choices which include food production, food supply and the food environment.
“Advertising and public health messaging can modify all these factors, especially the food environment, which in turn can influence and change dietary food patterns.
“And this study offers early but crucial insights into the impact of advertising, a relatively neglected area of nutritional research.”
The study is in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health.