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Even adverts for 'healthy' fast food are bad for children – here's why they should be banned


Shown between episodes of Peppa Pig, the advert promoted a meal which included chicken nuggets, pineapple and water – a menu which passed the Advertising Standards Association’s standards for healthy food. But, while it might be encouraging to see one of the world’s biggest food giants promoting fruit, can a McDonald’s advert ever truly be considered “healthy”?

It is clear that the huge amount of money spent on food advertising works. Campaigns are highly effective at persuading us to buy and eat more junk food, contributing to our expanding waistlines and hopelessly declining health.

The influence has been particularly well documented in children, who are more likely to like, demand and consume products which are high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) after watching adverts which promote them. Against a backdrop of worryingly high sugar consumption by children in the UK, the evidence is so compelling that the government is now considering a 9pm watershed on HFSS food marketing as part of the Childhood Obesity Plan.

Some food companies have responded by reformulating their products to cut down on sugar, salt and fat. This means that traditionally HFSS brands are now producing healthier, “non-HFSS” products which are exempt from the marketing restrictions, including the Happy Meal that appeared during the Peppa Pig ad-breaks.

On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable and logical solution. The fast food companies can still market their products and make a profit, while healthier foods are being promoted to the public.

But eating behaviour is often anything but reasonable and logical. It is driven by urgent, primitive desires that can be triggered by exposure to any images associated with our favourite unhealthy foods. These triggers include iconic logos such as those famous golden arches, which are more far readily associated with burgers and fries than with pineapples and water.


Our prior experiences of these brands matter – and old habits die hard. One study found that advertising “healthy” McDonald’s Happy Meals to children simply increased their liking for fast food overall and did nothing to encourage them to choose a healthier option.

There is also a risk that these adverts make the brand as a whole seem healthier than it really is. This is known as the “health halo” effect, where the positive attribute of “healthiness” spreads from the advert in question to the brand as a whole in the eyes of the consumer. This is a subtle effect that often occurs without conscious awareness.