Targeting kids in fast-food advertising: fair or predatory?

March 9, 2012, 1:54 p.m.

McDonald's, whose signature Big Mac is pictured above, has come under fire for a new advertising campaign for its revamped Happy Meal that targets children. (Credit: Li Tsin Soon/Flickr Creative Commons)

McDonald's rolled out a new advertising campaign this week promoting its revamped, healthier Happy Meal – something has made both health advocates and corporate watchdog agencies upset.

Under increasing pressure by health groups, McDonald's is in the midst of what it calls a commitment to "offer improved nutrition choices," of which its new ad campaign is the latest component. Among these changes are the revamped Happy Meal, a pledge to reduce sodium in its chicken offerings and increasing employees' and customers' access to nutrition information.

But some are saying for a place like South Los Angeles, efforts like this aren't enough.

The fast-food landscape in South L.A.

In 2010, KPCC reported that the City Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee had found that fast-food establishments comprise 71.8 percent of eateries in South L.A., compared to West Los Angeles' 47.7 percent and the county's 47.7 percent.

Ninth District Councilwoman Jan Perry, who has worked for healthier food options in the area, said the fast-food piece was only part of the health problems the area faces. The L.A. Times reported in 2007 that 30 percent of South L.A. adults were obese, compared to the county percentage of 23.3 percent; twenty-nine percent of South L.A. children were obese, compared to the county's 23.3 percent.

"The problems of a community in terms of community health have a multitude of elements to it," Perry told OnCentral. "People need places to exercise, people need healthy food options, people have to be educated and educate themselves on what to do about things like childhood obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, all those things. Obviously, we need to do more."

That began to happen in 2008, when the Times reports the City Council, citing health reasons, passed a law that barred fast-food restaurants from opening in South L.A. for at least a year. The moratorium was extended by another year in the summer of 2009, by which point community activists were already fighting to make the ban on fast-food joints in South L.A. permanent.That happened in December 2010, when the Council voted to ban new fast-food establishments from opening within a half-mile radius of existing eateries.

"The point of the moratorium was a land-use decision to hold the line on the available land we had left to develop so we could figure out how to address this," Perry explained.

The result of the moratorium was an ordinance that requires stand-alone fast food joints that want to open a location in South Los Angeles to meet certain design requirements. The ordinance does not apply to existing fast-food establishments, nor to establishments in mixed-use developments.

The moratorium wasn't without controversy, though. Regarding the South L.A. moratorium in particular, the Times reported that McDonald's and Carl's Jr. said they were being unfairly targeted and that the ban overlooked the good the fast-food franchises provide. And a study by Santa Monica-based think tank Rand Corp. said limiting soda and snack intake would be more effective in curbing problems like obesity than a new restaurant ban would.

Perry said her focus isn't on getting establishments out, but bringing more in. "I prefer to focus on trying to create options, bringing in more restaurants bringing in more grocery stores," she said. "We've got a long way to go. We still need more grocery stores and opportunities to buy healthy good." And even that itself doesn't improve health, the Times reported in 2011, when Perry told the Times that selecting healthy foods is up to the individual.

But Corporate Accountability International (CAI) says "no amount of exercise can compensate for the ill effects of a diet high in fast food" – and that "no corporation has pushed more unhealthy food" that's high in fat, salt or sugar on the public than McDonald's.

CAI also criticizes McDonald's for its marketing to children, a practice it calls "predatory marketing" – and CAI isn't the only one.

Targeting kids in advertising

Sara Deon is the director of CAI's Value [the] Meal campaign and said that McDonald's needs to stop targeting children in its advertising – completely.

"If you look at a lot of the studies," she said, "they really just highlight the fact that children's minds are still forming and for the most part they're unable to distinguish the persuasive intent of advertising." Deon pointed to a growing body of evidence that links diet-related diseases and marketing, and said it's an issue of a level playing field.

"Our point is it's the parents' job to decide what's right for the kids, and this campaign is really about a level playing field where parents don't have to compete with the marketing like a fast-food giant like McDonald's," said Deon, saying that the franchise's resources "vastly outweigh" parents'. Because McDonald's does not make its marketing spending public, Deon didn't have official numbers, but said CAI has heard that up to 40 percent of the franchise's marketing budget is spent on advertising to kids.

At its annual shareholder meeting last year, McDonald's defended its right to market to children, reports Nation's Restaurant News. CAI bought a full-page ad in several major newspapers in May 2011, calling on the franchise to stop advertising geared toward children. Chief Executive Jim Skinner responded by asking CAI to respect their right to "advertise freely," just as McDonald's has done with CAI's newspaper ads.

"We'll continue to advertise to our customers responsibly about menu and about lifestyle choices and leave the personal responsibility up to them," he told CAI representatives at the shareholder meeting. "We take responsible advertising very seriously."

Regarding McDonald's new campaign, Deon was adamant that attempting to educate children on nutrition isn't the corporation's job, and is also a conflict of interest. "The McDonald's brand is really built on marketing to children and no corporation spends or profits more from doing that," she said. "Certainly everything from Happy Meals to Ronald McDonald is geared toward making kids cradle-to-grave consumers of a product."

Deon and CAI aren't alone in their criticism. Michele Simon, a public health lawyer who has been an expert witness against McDonald's, told the Chicago Tribune that "[what] we want is for McDonald's to get out of the way, for parents to do their job to teach their children about nutrition."

Breanna Morrison, a policy analyst for Community Health Councils, which is located in South L.A., pointed to the disproportionate lack of healthy options and the community's demand for them, as well as a shortage of developable land for new eatery alternatives.

"In our policy recommendations, we've never said fast-food restaurants cannot sell the food items they want," she said. "We're just saying that if you're going to monopolize the food items that are offered in the community, that you provide a diversity of options so that there can be a more equitable access to healthy food in our community, especially if the type of food they sell has negative health outcomes."

Morrison said the advertising piece is also an issue because fast-food restaurants advertise more in low-income communities, disproportionately affecting communities like South Los Angeles – kids in particular.

But Jonathan Rothchild, an associate professor of theological ethics at Loyola Marymount University, said kids ought to be given a little more credit.

"Children are more sophisticated than we think, so it's about having a conversation, allowing children some autonomy, saying, OK, what kind of choices do you want to make, and here are some of the implications of those choices," said Rothchild. Of course, he said, that doesn't replace or reduce the role of the parent. It does, however, gives children a role in the decision-making process, which he said could ultimately help to hold children more accountable and provide children with autonomy, which he said would result in better, more authentic decision-making.

To move beyond the impasse that exists between organizations like McDonald's and CAI, Rothchild said "we as a society need to think deeply about the balance between freedom and responsibility." He envisioned McDonald's and other fast-food establishments playing a "collaborative role in creating the conditions" for instilling healthy eating habits in children.

"Maybe that's idealist ethical rhetoric," Rothchild said, "but there's an argument that good social and ethical stewardship is good for business." And because McDonald's is so huge, he added, the franchise could even become a trendsetter – in the positive sense of the word – in the fast-food industry.

"The responsibility is to provide as much information, to give as much voice to consumers so that they can make responsible choices for themselves," said the professor, again noting the crucial role parents play in the case of children. "Not to suggest that it's utterly relativistic, but [the effects of] consuming a meal for one person might be different than everybody else, and those kinds of choices need to be seen within a larger framework of one's overall health."

Photo by Li Tsin Soon via Flickr Creative Commons.

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