Mounting concern over child obesity and diabetes has caused a backlash against fast-food marketing practices. Such marketing employs the use of kid-friendly “spokescharacters” and the offering of toys along with meals laced with fat and sugar to appeal to children. Additionally, companies employing these practices count on something called the “nag factor”—meaning kids nagging their parents to take them for one of these meals. Parents who have to work and cannot spend enough time with their children tend to give in out of a sense of guilt.
Recently, several health and food safety organizations banded together in protest of these tactics, singling out McDonald’s simply because it established the fast-food market and today remains the fast-food leader. “We focus on McDonald’s because they are the industry leader by far,” Sara Deon, director of Corporate Accountability International’s Value [the] Meal Campaign, told Organic Connections.“We have often seen in corporate campaigning that when you work on the industry leader, you move the whole industry. McDonald’s created and developed these predatory marketing techniques, and other fast- food and larger corporations have emulated them.”
In May of this year, to coincide with the annual meeting of McDonald’s shareholders, an open letter signed by over 500 health professionals was sent to McDonald’s CEO, Jim Skinner. It read, in part,
“Our community is devoted to caring for sick children and preventing illness through public education. But our efforts cannot compete with the hundreds of millions of dollars you spend each year directly marketing to kids. . . .
“The rise of health conditions like diabetes and heart disease mirrors the growth of your business—growth driven in large part by children’s marketing. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics deems such marketing ‘inherently deceptive to children under 8,’ you continue to use it as a vehicle to grow your enterprise.”
CAI has been involved with numerous successful campaigns in the past, including opposing the marketing of tobacco to teens with characters such as Joe Camel in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, CAI has seen similarities between fast-food marketing and the Camel campaign. “We have described Ronald McDonald as the deep-fried Joe Camel for the twenty-first century,” Deon said. “If you consider things like Joe Camel, cigarette vending machines, cigarettes being in movies—methods that we think about now as completely egregious—that’s where we’re moving to with food.”
One of the preeminent authorities to sign the letter to Skinner was author, food activist and NYU professor Marion Nestle, PhD. “Marketing to children is unethical,” Nestle told Organic Connections.“Children cannot be expected to understand its significance or how to deal with it. It makes kids think that advertised foods are what they are supposed to be eating, and that they know more than their parents do about it. It is morally and ethically wrong and should be stopped.”
One organization that signed on as a co-sponsor of the letter was the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). Dr. David Wallinga is IATP’s Senior Advisor in Science, Food and Health, as well as being a medical doctor. “I think that what you are seeing is a new movement around food and the impacts of our food system on us,” Dr. Wallinga told Organic Connections. “I see it as akin to the environmental movement or other movements that have defined the last hundred years, where people just weren’t aware before. They kind of went to the supermarket and blindly chose products without really understanding how those products were produced and processed and distributed.
Now that consumers are becoming more aware, they’re looking for outlets to lodge their concern, and some of that is people writing to Congress or the administration. Some of it is also writing to big companies like McDonald’s; and—let’s face it—single companies like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s by themselves are spending many more billions of dollars to market foods that aren’t so healthy than, say, the USDA spends to help promote foods that are healthy. So I think that’s sort of the broad genesis of this movement that results in so many signatures.”
In response to the notification that we were writing this article, McDonald’s corporation told Organic Connections, through a prepared statement, “McDonald’s does not advertise unhealthy food to children. We are committed to responsible advertising and take it very seriously. We were among the first in 2006 to support the U.S. Better Business Bureau’s advertising guidelines for kids. We follow system-wide guidelines on how we responsibly communicate with children about balanced food choices and being active. We offer a variety of Happy Meal choices for families. We believe it’s all about choice.”
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