Does fear of libel lawsuits influence what gets published in medical journals? We suggest it may, especially when the conclusions run counter to corporate interests.
A research team headed by Sargent probed children’s responses to televised fast-food ads. The study tested Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) advertising self-regulation guidelines, in which the Better Business Bureau “evaluates child-directed advertising and promotional material in all media to advance truthfulness, accuracy and consistency with its Self-Regulatory Program for Children’s Advertising.”1 The study examined children’s responses to television ads from McDonald’s and Burger King, companies responsible for 99% of the child-directed fast-food advertising on television in the United States at that time.2 It tested whether children’s ads focused the child’s attention primarily on the product and made the premium message clearly secondary, as CARU guidelines on deception said they should.3
To test this hypothesis for each company, the investigators randomly selected 1 adult and 1 children’s ad from 2010–2011 national television ads (n = 107) for children ages 3 to 7 years to watch. None of the adult ads and almost all of the children’s ads contained a premium message, typically showing the current toy giveaway. After each viewing, the children were asked, “What did you see?” Most (∼70%) reported the adult ad was about food. However, fewer than half reported the children’s ad was about food. For children’s ads alone and for both restaurants, recall frequency for food was not significantly different from premiums/tie-ins. The investigators concluded that the companies had failed to comply with CARU’s self-regulation requirements that they emphasize food over premiums.
The manuscript was reviewed at Pediatrics and was …
Address correspondence to James D. Sargent, MD, Norris Cotton Cancer Center, Rubin 8, One Medical Center Dr, Lebanon, NH 03756. E-mail: