Just watch the video here and you'll immediately get the gist of this study. To sum up: when fast food companies try to advertise to children their "healthier" dining options, (like apple slices) the kids, for the most part, don't see beyond the fries.
The takeaway, according to researchers at Dartmouth, is that these ads from fast food giants like McDonald's and Burger King "don't send the right message."
Here's more from the Dartmouth news release:
In research published March 31, 2014 in JAMA Pediatrics, Dartmouth researchers found that one-half to one-third of children did not identify milk when shown McDonald's and Burger King children's advertising images depicting that product. Sliced apples in Burger King's ads were identified as apples by only 10 percent of young viewers; instead most reported they were french fries.
Other children admitted being confused by the depiction, as with one child who pointed to the product and said, "And I see some…are those apples slices?"
The researcher replied, "I can't tell you…you just have to say what you think they are."
"I think they're french fries," the child responded.
"Burger King's depiction of apple slices as ‘Fresh Apple Fries' was misleading to children in the target age range," said principal investigator James Sargent, MD, co-director Cancer Control Research Program at Norris Cotton Cancer Center. "The advertisement would be deceptive by industry standards, yet their self-regulation bodies took no action to address the misleading depiction."
In 2010 McDonald's and Burger King began to advertise apples and milk in kids meals. Sargent and his colleagues studied fast food television ads aimed at children from July 2010 through June 2011. In this study researchers extracted "freeze frames" of Kids Meals shown in TV ads that appeared on Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and other children's cable networks. Of the four healthy food depictions studied, only McDonald's presentation of apple slices was recognized as an apple product by a large majority of the target audience, regardless of age. Researchers found that the other three presentations represented poor communication.
This study follows an earlier investigation conducted by Sargent and his colleagues, which found that McDonald's and Burger King children's advertising emphasized giveaways like toys or box office movie tie-ins to develop children's brand awareness for fast food chains, despite self-imposed guidelines that discourage the practice.
This new study reinforces the idea that even as fast food chains appear to be evolving and offering a broader range of more nutritional options, little really changes. For instance, a report from 2012 found that despite healthier food offerings, the average fast-food calorie count has changed little since 1997.