Fast-food companies face scrutiny on the federal, state and local level, but that hasn’t translated into a lot of added restrictions on industry advertising. Though scrutiny is placed on advertising geared towards children, aside from that these companies otherwise face mostly the same regulations as any business. States and local areas may have the power to add their own restrictions, however, so check carefully before placing that first ad.


Many fast-food vendors accept self-regulation -- for example, by agreeing to advertise only comparatively healthy fare during programming directed at children. The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, created by the Better Business Bureau, is a fast-food industry group of member companies that agree not to advertise their less healthy fare to younger viewers. TV programs or other news and entertainment outlets with an audience of 35 percent or more viewers aged 12 or younger fall under this restricted marketing category. These extend beyond TV to include print, the Internet, mobile media and video games.


The Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration both have regulatory roles that restrict fast-food advertising. To stay in the good graces of the FTC, fast-food restaurant advertisements must be truthful and non-deceptive, must be able to back up their claims with evidence and can’t run advertisements that are unfair. FDA regulations are more food-specific and the agency is behind the push to get restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus. It also watches for advertising facts about the food being served that prove untrue. These regulatory agencies offer some protection for consumers. For example, its regulations ensure that a restaurant claiming its food is prepared according to Islamic law can be sued if consumers discover that claim is false.


Fast-food advertising restrictions may be argued and decided at the state level. That doesn’t necessarily mean more restrictions, and in fact successful lobbying efforts have caused several states to take actions to make it more difficult to put the brakes on ad campaigns. Arizona, for example, specifically prohibits local governments from regulating how fast-food companies market their toys or other customer incentives commonly used in items like children’s meals.


Opponents of fast-food advertising techniques have been more successful at getting restrictions in place at the local level. In 2010, for example, San Francisco required fast-food restaurants to show their children’s meals meet specific nutritional standards before toys can be included with their purchase. The industry argues that this could potentially require them to meet countless unique standards in each individual market. This isn’t a concern in Arizona specifically, because of the state’s explicit ruling that individual cities and towns have no authority to regulate in that way, but a fast-food restaurant with franchises elsewhere should check and make sure there aren’t any unexpected regulatory roadblocks.