In light of their findings, researchers called for more regulation of fast-food marketing to children.
"Given health concerns about obesity and its relation to fast-food consumption, enhanced oversight of fast-food marketing to children at the local, state and federal level is needed to align advertising to children with health promotion efforts and existing principles of honest and fair marketing to children," the study's authors wrote.
The study, led by Dr James Sargent, a professor of paediatrics at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, involved fast-food ads appearing on children's television networks, such Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. These ads were compared to fast-food marketing campaigns geared toward adults.
The study, published 28 August in the journal PLoS One, revealed that the advertisements aimed at children featured food packaging, movie tie-ins and exterior shots of the fast-food restaurants. Almost 70% of the kids' ads also included free toys or other giveaways.
In contrast, the campaigns targeting adults focused on the taste, cost and portion size of the foods available at the restaurant. The researchers noted that only 1% of the adult ads included a giveaway.
"Fast-food companies use free toys and popular movies to appeal to kids, and their ads are much more focused on promotions, brands and logos – not on the food," Sargent said in a news release from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the study.
"These are techniques that the companies' own self-regulatory body calls potentially misleading," Sargent said.
The researchers noted that previous studies have shown that associating fast food with cartoon characters can influence children's perceptions about how food tastes and also increase their consumption. The Better Business Bureau has also stated that children's ads should feature food that has met certain nutritional criteria.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health provides more information on child nutrition.