Growing Up In A Fast Food Nation

mcpretendingIn the latest Ypulse Monitor and Ypulse Report (see full summaries in our Research Roundup) we saw the enduring pull of young, hungry students to fast food joints, specifically those of the burger variety. Cheap, reliable and probably just off campus,  our research found nearly all (nine-out-of-10) college students and teens had gone to restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King, or Wendy’s in the past month, at a frequency of about four times a month/once a week. McDonald’s also came up as the #1 option for lunch, dinner, snacking (and increasingly even coffee!) spot for both demos. For all of the reasons stated above (price, reliability location), this trend isn’t a surprising one, but with rates of childhood and teen obesity staying at epidemic levels especially among low-income youth, it does raise some health concerns.

While “Happy Meals” and the like have undergone a healthful makeover as of late (apple “fries” instead of fries, milk instead of soda, etc.) for tweens/concerned parents, and older consumers are targeted with the contradiction in terms that is the “fast food diet,” teens and young adults get lost somewhere in between, lured instead by what’s tasty and cheap, i.e. the dollar menu-type items. While two out of three teens and college students reported going to the potentially healthier, sandwich shop chains like Subway or Quizno’s over the same period of time, the wide range of choices available still include poor picks like Quizno’s Tuna Melt, rated the number one unhealthiest sandwich of 2009. I also recalled a negative responses to the price difference of sandwich shops at the youth-hosted forum on childhood obesity I attended back in September and the “no duh” look students gave when considering the choice between a “$5 Footlong” and the wide variety of cheaper (read: junkier) items available elsewhere (including school facilities).

While the obvious next step here might sound like staying the course with the recent wave of low-cost, low-calorie items like salads or grilled chicken, it’s actually a little more complicated than that. For one thing, teens and college students know that fast food is an indulgence. That’s one of the reasons they like it (along with candy, energy drinks, soda, etc.) and seek it out at these restaurants. While putting a clearly labeled “good for you” option next to the tempting “not so good for you” option might persuade a few diners to practice self-control, for most that decision was already made when they walked in the door. In fact, just last year the New York Times, reg. required, reported a study conducted on college students that showed the presence of healthy options on a menu might induce diners to eat even less healthily than they otherwise would.

Instead, the challenge and opportunity brands face becomes creating ad campaigns/menu options that reconcile the socially responsible (image-boosting) course of action without compromising on taste or that irresistible “fast food factor.” For fast food folks, the answer could lie in using more wholesome ingredients for those less healthful items, or revamping some healthy items to not scream “healthy!” For those outside of the industry who care about teen and young adult health, the key here—like every failed extreme New Year’s dieter learns—is to promote moderation vs. banning fast food altogether.


  1. Consumer-opoly: What really motivates consumers? |

    [...] Growing Up In A Fast Food Nation ( [...]

Got something to say?

NEW YORK, NY 10001