A new study has found initial indications of a “worrying” tactic by McDonald’s in an area that has not really been explored.
McDonald’s seems to use social media marketing to target more children in poorer countries than those in wealthier countries, a new observational study found.
The study, published Wednesday in the BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health Journal, analyzed Instagram accounts linked to 15 counties before coming to a conclusion.
They were grouped into high-income countries that included Australia, high-middle-income countries, and low-middle-income countries that consisted of Indonesia, India, and Egypt.
The researchers, mostly from New York University’s School of Public Health, then collected all of the posts from each of the fast food giant’s Instagram accounts for each country over four months between September and December 2019.
All followers, likes, comments and video views of these posts up to April 2020 were then added up and analyzed.
A total of 849 marketing posts were identified.
The study found that McDonald’s posted 154 percent more in low-income countries than in higher-income countries.
Worryingly, it also found that child-friendly posts were also more common in poorer countries.
In the low-income countries, about 22 percent of jobs were child-friendly, compared to 12 percent in the high-income countries.
“By targeting specific sub-groups through child-friendly ads and price promotions, McDonald’s social media ads can exacerbate health problems in the world’s most vulnerable countries,” the researchers said.
“As the use of social media increases, the social media advertisements from fast food companies can have an unprecedented impact on diet options, especially in low-income countries.”
The Instagram accounts of higher-income countries, such as @mcdonaldsau (McDonald’s Australia), were also more likely to have posts depicting healthy habits (5 percent) compared to low-income countries (2.5 percent).
Only 14 percent of posts in high-income countries contained promotions and free giveaways, compared to 40 percent in low-income countries.
“Price is a key component of a marketing mix and is often used to aid consumer buying, especially in lower-income communities that may be using price as a decision-making criterion,” the researchers said.
The researchers noted that the results of the observational study should be interpreted with caution due to the uneven sampling, small number of countries involved, and lack of information on the purchasing behavior of those following McDonald’s accounts.
However, they said this was an important area to study and there was a growing need to address the globalization of food and beverage marketing in developing countries, where malnutrition, obesity and diseases are associated with these issues.
“This study offers early but crucial insights into the effects of advertising, a relatively neglected area of research,” the authors say.
In a statement, McDonald’s Australia said it is aware of its responsibility to provide age-appropriate content to its audiences.
A spokesman said they are following the Australian Advertising Code regarding marketing to children.
“Social media is used by McDonald’s Australia to endorse and support information about our menus, cheap promotions, our farmers and suppliers, our employees and the communities we are proud of,” the spokesman said.
“We have always encouraged McDonald’s as part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle.”
The 15 countries examined:
High income: USA, Australia, UK, Canada, United Arab Emirates, Portugal, Panama
Upper middle income: Romania, Lebanon, Malaysia, Brazil and South Africa
Lower middle income: Indonesia, Egypt and India