I took my kids to the local library this weekend and was reminded how hard it is for them to avoid junk food marketing. McTeacher’s Nights and Ronald McDonald assemblies in schools have been joined by signs at the library telling kids to “Bring your Happy Meal books for Ronald to Sign!” When I mentioned how sad it was to see the library being used to market McDonald’s to kids, the Lexington Public Library tweeted:
Program focus is purely on literacy & reading, not McDonald’s restaurants. Think Ronald McDonald House. Appreciate the feedback!
The sign says bring your Happy Meal books but kids are supposed to think Ronald McDonald charity houses? That’s quite a stretch but it does highlight how successful the company has been in using charity as a shield. What better way to shutdown parents like me who do not want the fast food giant in every nook and cranny of kids’ lives? Fortunately, two new reports provide support for parents who are trying to win the battle for kids’ health.
Michele R. Simon released Clowning Around with Charity: How McDonald’s Exploits Philanthropy and Targets Children. Some key findings included:
• McDonald’s spent almost 25 times as much on advertising as it did on charitable donations in 2011.
• Based on available information, in 2012, on average, McDonald’s donated about one-fifth of the revenues of Ronald McDonald House Charities, the corporation’s “charity of choice”— yet McDonald’s enjoys 100 percent of the branded benefit of this charity.
• McDonald’s persistent targeting of school children violates its own self-regulatory pledge to not advertise in schools.
I was quoted in the report about why McDonald’s doesn’t belong in schools.
When schools partner with an organization like the Ronald McDonald House, it gives students the message that you can trust McDonald’s. When they see the Happy Meal ad on television, they remember it’s from a trusted partner of their school. How can the soda and fast food at McDonald’s be harmful to their health if teachers are tacitly or overtly endorsing this company’s presence at their school? We can put a great deal of time, money and effort into teaching health and wellness to students but it goes to waste when the Golden Arches are a part of their school.
The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity released Fast Food FACTS 2013: Fast Food Companies Still Target Kids with Marketing for Unhealthy Products. Some key findings included:
In 2012, fast food restaurants spent $4.6 billion in total on all advertising, an 8% increase over 2009. For context, the biggest advertiser, McDonald’s, spent 2.7 times as much to advertise its products ($972 million) as all fruit, vegetable, bottled water, and milk advertisers combine ($367 million).
McDonald’s was the only restaurant to advertise more to children than to older age groups. Children (6-11 years) saw 16% more TV ads for McDonald’s than teens saw and 8% more than adults saw.
McDonald’s Happy Meals were the most frequently advertised products to children.
McDonald’s increased advertising to children on the internet. It placed 34 million display ads per month for Happy Meals in 2012, an increase of 63% versus 2009, and three-quarters of these ads appeared on kids’ websites. Ads for McDonald’s Happy Meal were viewed on kids’ websites more often than any other menu item or product.
The five least healthy kids’ meals were found at McDonald’s and Sonic.
The one remaining large child-targeted website, HappyMeal.com, was visited 30% more often by Hispanic youth and 44% more often by black youth.
Restaurants should stop targeting children with marketing that takes advantage of their developmental vulnerabilities and reaches them behind parents’ backs.
To help share the report findings, Yale Rudd Center created a video and infographic which highlight what parents are up against.
Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, put it this way:
Industry talking points emphasize the importance of personal responsibility, and argue that if mom really wants to reduce her child’s exposure to food advertising, it’s up to her to just turn off the television and ignore her child begging for junk food in the cereal aisle. But are we also supposed to keep our children out of schools, off the Internet, and never bring our kids to the grocery store?
Juliet Sims, Program Manager at Prevention Institute, sums up why McDonald’s educational philanthropy comes at too high a cost to children’s health.
But as a mother and a health advocate, I have to say that the most insidious aspect of McTeacher’s Night is the chilling effect it can have on discussions about junk food marketing to kids. In the ‘always on’ media environment that today’s kids live in, it’s ever more critical for our children to develop media literacy – to understand that companies are targeting them directly with messages designed to build brand loyalty. Schools are a natural place to educate children about marketing, and to develop the critical thinking skills needed to recognize it. It’s also where kids can learn about nutrition and the harmful impact of junk food. When McDonald’s engages in educational philanthropy, it’s buying silence and complicity from the schools it partners with. And that’s a steep price to pay.
I have seen the very organizations that should be protecting children from McDonald’s marketing become complicit in silencing the discussion. When I asked Girls on the Run, Central Kentucky if they had contacted McDonald’s to sponsor their 5K or if McDonald’s had contacted them, they didn’t answer the question and hid my comments from their Facebook page. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation is treating McDonald’s pledge to ensure all advertising to children include a fun nutrition or well-being message as a major breakthrough, while ignoring the more important issue of the company using schools to market to kids. Is it any wonder schools and libraries won’t say no to McDonald’s when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics take their sponsorship money and give them exhibit space at conferences? I want my children to know that when it comes to health, McDonald’s is not their friend despite the billions of dollars the company spends on marketing to make them think otherwise. It feels like I am being undermined in this effort by the very organizations that parents should be able to trust.