McDonald\’s Instagram ads target kids in poorer nations

A particular pattern has emerged in McDonald’s overseas social-media marketing, and it isn’t likely to sit well with health activists.

According to a new study analyzing its Instagram posts in various low- and high-income countries on all six continents, the burger giant’s strategy in poorer countries appears to contain a sort of troika of controversial tactics: The ads it puts on social media are aimed at younger kids, focus less on healthy eating habits, and offer more deals and promotions than its ads in wealthier nations. Based on the findings, the study’s authors conclude they’ve identified yet another way that McDonald’s marketing practices may negatively impact the health of nonwhite people of lower incomes, already the most vulnerable group when it comes to diet-related illnesses and obesity.

The findings were published Tuesday in BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health, part of an NIH-funded study by NYU Langone Health researchers. While there’s no shortage of criticism of McDonald’s advertising generally speaking, their interest was that almost nobody had conducted a comparative analysis of its social-media strategy across various markets. So they picked Instagram, a big platform with a billion monthly users, and analyzed all the posts that appeared on McDonald’s accounts in 15 different countries to see how tactics might change from one market to the next.

The authors write that a pretty clear pattern surfaced. They categorized the 15 countries by their World Bank income classification, then the Instagram posts on the account associated with each market for a four-month period, from September to December of 2019. In wealthier countries, the authors write, the posts often relied on celebrity endorsements and, content-wise, “featured more healthy habits themes.”

The Instagram accounts in poorer countries, meanwhile, included:

  • More Instagram posts overall. Those 15 accounts posted 849 different times during that four-month period. The list’s three poorest nations—Indonesia, Egypt, and India—accounted for 324 of the posts, or about 38%, despite having only 2.1 million of the 15 accounts’ 10 million followers.
  • More posts targeting children. Compared to wealthier countries, developing countries also had far more kid-friendly posts—for example, Canada’s rate was only 4.8% of posts, England’s was 6.3%, Portugal’s was 6.3%, but Panama’s was 21.3%, Brazil’s was 26.8%, Egypt’s was 17%, and India’s was 16.7%, while in Indonesia it was 27.6%. None of the posts by McDonald’s U.S. account targeted children during this period.
  • More posts offering a discount or promotional deal for the food being advertised. The breakdown here is similar to the breakdown of posts aimed at kids: Lower in the U.S. (0%), Canada (3.2%), and Australia (3.2%), but much higher in markets like Malaysia (44.4%), Indonesia (27%), and India (14.3%). The authors write this suggests McDonald’s “may be using value-price promotions as a marketing technique more in [lower-middle-income countries].”

Asked about the findings, McDonald’s told Fast Company that the study “is not an accurate representation of our social media content globally,” which spans more than 100 countries. A spokesperson added that McDonald’s “takes seriously how our brand engages with our youngest customers, including setting Global Happy Meal Goals to help promote balanced menu offerings and responsible marketing to kids under age 12.”

For context, the company also explained that while each market gets to tailor social media content to “what is most important to their customers, while abiding by local guidelines, themes like value, balanced choices, and sustainability appear frequently across social channels in all of our markets.”

The paper does note other variables are also at play. For starters, the Instagram accounts are often outsourced to third-party marketing agencies. Plus, it’s established that food ads targeting wealthier people focus more on health and wellness. Nevertheless, the researchers conclude that as social media use grows, fast-food chains’ presence on those platforms “may have unprecedented effects on dietary options, especially in lower-income countries.” They argue that by targeting kids with ads that push price promotions, McDonald’s may, in the process, “exacerbate healthcare issues in the most vulnerable countries in the world.”