Many experts name Ray Kroc, founder of the McDonald's franchise, and Walt Disney as the pioneers of child-focused marketing, since they first recognized children as a separate marketing demographic from adults in the 1960s. For Kroc and Disney, the decision was a pragmatic business move. "A child who loves our TV commercials and brings her grandparents to a McDonald's gives us two more customers," Kroc once said. More than 40 years later, the McDonald's franchise remains at the forefront of child-directed marketing, a source of concern for both consumer groups and parents who believe that McDonald's purposely markets unhealthy food to children.
McDonald's currently spends more money on advertising in general than any other brand in all industries combined, helping it replace Coca-Cola as the world's most famous brand, according to "Fast Food Nation" author Eric Schlosser. The fast food franchise operates more playgrounds than any other American private corporation, is the namesake for McKids, which is the bestselling line of children's clothing in the United States, and is one of the largest toy distributors. In 1998, 89 percent of American children under age 8 had visited McDonald's at least once per month. Furthermore, according to a research study of American children, 96 percent of those surveyed could recognize Ronald McDonald, making him the second most identifiable fictional character after Santa Claus. All this has led Schlosser to conclude, "The impact of McDonald's on the way we live today is hard to overstate."
Unfortunately, the company that has such a large impact on our society sells food and beverages that also appear to increase risk for the chronic diseases that plague our population. The "McLibel" trial -- when the McDonald's Corporation took two working class, British citizens to court for passing out anti-McDonald's leaflets -- ended up working against the plaintiff, as the trial's widespread popularity made the defendants' condemnations of McDonald's more well known than if they would have just been allowed to pass out the leaflets. "Not only had the trial focused public attention on ethical issues related to McDonald's marketing to children of diets high in calories, saturated fat, and sodium, but it also had illustrated the time and expense to which a food company was willing to go to stifle criticism of such practices," Marion Nestle writes in "Food Politics."
Making Happy Meals Healthier?
Even though the defendants didn't have the financial backing, influence or powerful lawyers that McDonald's had, many consumers realized that they had a point. Facts are facts: McDonald's does market less-than-healthful foods to children, a problem that they are trying to remedy with the addition of apple slices, milk and other healthy foods to their Happy Meals. So, how do these healthier Happier Meals measure up? Click here to find out: www.McDonalds.com)
As you can see, McDonald's new, healthier Happy Meals cut the fat and calories of traditional Happy Meals by substituting Apple Dippers for french fries and apple juice for a soft drink. These substitutions make Happy Meals healthier by reducing calorie and fat content, but on the other hand, they actually increase the sugar content. Increased sugar intake can create major problems for children living with diabetes, ADHD or obesity. Substituting an 8-ounce jug of low-fat, chocolate milk for apple juice or soft drink cuts down on sugar, but milk can also induce asthma, allergies, acne and constipation.
Luring kids in with toys and playgrounds
Children may like to go to McDonald's because they like the taste of the food, playing in the Playland and the Happy Meal toy. The Playland playground area at most McDonald's restaurants plays an important role in many children's social lives because it is a fun place outside of school where kids can meet and play with other children. This is especially true in neighborhoods without a local park.
However, many experts believe that the real thrill of McDonald's for kids is the Happy Meal toy. Furthermore, according to Schlosser, partnerships with Disney, NBA and the Olympics cause consumers to psychologically associate feelings that they have about the sponsors with their products. In "Fast Food Nation," Schlosser reveals the intentions behind these partnerships, based on McDonald's memos:
"Ads would link the company's french fries 'to the excitement and fanaticism people feel about the NBA.' The feelings of pride inspired by the Olympics would be used in ads to help launch a new hamburger with more meat than the Big Mac. The link with the Walt Disney Company was considered by far the most important, designed to 'enhance perceptions of Brand McDonald's.' A memo sought to explain the underlying psychology behind many visits to McDonald's: parents took their children to McDonald's because they 'want the kids to love them ... it makes them feel like a good parent.' Purchasing something from Disney was the 'ultimate' way to make kids happy, but it was too expensive to do every day ... The ads aimed at 'minivan parents' would carry an unspoken message about taking your children to McDonald's: 'It's an easy way to feel like a good parent.'"
Marketing tactics play on our emotions, making child-directed marketing seem somewhat sinister, as it plays with the emotions of children and their parents. The globalization of fast food franchises like McDonald's has taken the marketing of unhealthy foods to children to a global level. Fortunately, you can protect yourself and your family from marketing ploys with "Spam Filters for Your Brain," a book by Mike Adams. When you buy it through Truth Publishing, you'll also get "The Real Safety Guide to Protecting Against Advertisers, Marketers and Big Business Propaganda" for free.
Overall, be more aware of marketing ploys. Taking your child to McDonald's doesn't make your child feel nearly as special as simply receiving love, time and attention.
Expert opinion on marketing and children:
The early days of child-focused marketing
Children were identified as a separate market for advertisers in the 1960s. The concept developed quickly, and now there are conferences, books, and ad agencies all focused on children as consumers. Marketing handbooks encourage businesses to target children and provide strategies to "unlock the secrets to children's hearts." As a result, marketing to children has doubled since 1992. Food Fight by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen, page 102
McDonald's still leads in child-focused marketing
McDonald's spends more money on advertising and marketing than any other brand. As a result it has replaced Coca-Cola as the world's most famous brand. McDonald's operates more playgrounds than any other private entity in the United States. It is responsible for the nation's bestselling line of children's clothing (McKids) and is one of the largest distributors of toys. A survey of American schoolchildren found that 96 percent could identity Ronald McDonald. The only fictional character with a higher degree of recognition was Santa Claus. The impact of McDonald's on the way we live today is hard to overstate. Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, page 365
Forty percent of McDonald's advertising directly targets children. In 1998, Coca-Cola paid the Boys and Girls Clubs of America $60 million for exclusive marketing in more than 2,000 clubs. Food Fight by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen, page 103
McDonald's produces commercials, advertisements, and a Web site aimed specifically at children aged eight to 13. Other fast-food companies are also developing campaigns for preteens, and Campbell Soup views "appealing to children [as] one prong of a new effort to lift sales." Food Politics by Marion Nestle, page 179
With cable expanding and VCR use almost universal, entertainment firms entered the children's "edu-tainment" niche with a vengeance, marketing a torrent of children's programs, videos, and games. So did McDonald's, which in 1985 initiated its so-called "tweens" advertising strategy to reach older kids and adolescents. Fat Land by Greg Critser, page 72
In 1998, 89 percent of children under age eight visited McDonald's at least once a month. Their vice president of marketing said that McDonald's goal for the following year was 100 percent. A study of nearly 10,000 children showed that 100 percent of those in the United States recognized Ronald McDonald; the figures were 98 percent in Japan and 93 percent in the United Kingdom. Food Fight by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen, page 100
By the time it ended, the trial had become "one of the greatest David and Goliath stories in the history of common-law jurisprudence." Not only had the trial focused public attention on ethical issues related to McDonald's marketing to children of diets high in calories, saturated fat, and sodium, but it also had illustrated the time and expense to which a food company was willing to go to stifle criticism of such practices. Food Politics by Marion Nestle, page 162
The real cause of obesity is embarrassingly simple: Americans consume more calories than they need to maintain a healthy body weight. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American consumed 500 calories more per day in 2000 than in 1970. Much of this increase is explained by the doubling in the amount of food eaten outside the home from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, by which time restaurant and takeout food accounted for one-third of total energy consumption. Restaurants offer high-calorie foods and increased portion sizes to attract customers. [M]arketing of fast food and high-calorie snacks to children continues to become ever more sophisticated, creating an unhealthy appetite for calorie-rich foods. Overdosed America by John Abramson MD, page 237
Other examples of progress are in changes in the foods themselves or in marketing healthy food in interesting ways. The McDonald's change in fat used to fry foods (now on hold) and the Frito-Lay healthier snacks discussed in Chapter 10 are good examples, although we must consider the possibility that people will eat more of these foods and hence increase calorie intake. The fast-food restaurants have introduced healthier options. Grilled chicken sandwiches at all major chains, an array of salads at Wendy's, and yogurt with fruit at McDonald's are all positive changes. Tropicana has introduced a special Healthy Kids Orange Juice that is reformulated for children but is still 100 percent juice. Food Fight by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen, page 295
Luring kids in with toys and playgrounds
[A]lthough the fast food chains annually spend about $3 billion on television advertising, their marketing efforts directed at children extend far beyond such conventional ads. The McDonald's Corporation now operates more than eight thousand playgrounds at its restaurants in the United States. Burger King has more than two thousand. A manufacturer of "playlands" explains why fast food operators build these largely plastic structures: "Playlands bring in children, who bring in parents, who bring in money." As American cities and towns spend less money on children's recreation, fast food restaurants have become gathering spaces for families with young children. Every month about 90 percent of American children between the ages of three and nine visit a McDonald's. The seesaws, slides, and pits full of plastic balls have proven to be an effective lure. "But when it gets down to brass tacks," a Brandweek article on fast food notes, "the key to attracting kids is toys, toys, toys." Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, page 48
Do prizes, premiums, games, and Coke cards induce children to request the products? Of course they do. Children love such items, and food marketers explicitly reinforce such desires. Food Politics by Marion Nestle, page 188
According to these documents, the marketing alliances with other brands were intended to create positive feelings about McDonald's, making consumers associate one thing they liked with another. Ads would link the company's french fries "to the excitement and fanaticism people feel about the NBA." The feelings of pride inspired by the Olympics would be used in ads to help launch a new hamburger with more meat than the Big Mac. The link with the Walt Disney Company was considered by far the most important, designed to "enhance perceptions of Brand McDonald's." A memo sought to explain the underlying psychology behind many visits to McDonald's: parents took their children to McDonald's because they "want the kids to love them ... it makes them feel like a good parent." Purchasing something from Disney was the "ultimate" way to make kids happy, but it was too expensive to do every day. The advertising needed to capitalize on these feelings, letting parents know that "only McDonald's makes it easy to get a bit of Disney magic." The ads aimed at "minivan parents" would carry an unspoken message about taking your children to McDonald's: "It's an easy way to feel like a good parent." Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, page 51
The competition for young customers has led the fast food chains to form marketing alliances not just with toy companies, but with sports leagues and Hollywood studios. McDonald's has staged promotions with the National Basketball Association and the Olympics. Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC signed a three-year deal with the NCAA. Wendy's has linked with the National Hockey League. Burger King and Nickelodeon, Denny's and Major League Baseball, McDonald's and the Fox Kids Network have all formed partnerships that mix advertisements for fast food with children's entertainment. Burger King has sold chicken nuggets shaped like Teletubbies. McDonald's now has its own line of children's videos starring Ronald McDonald. The Wacky Adventures of Ronald McDonald is being produced by Klasky-Csupo, the company that makes Rugrats and The Simpsons. The videos feature the McDonaldland characters and sell for $3.49. "We see this as a great opportunity," a McDonald's executive said in a press release, "to create a more meaningful relationship between Ronald and kids." Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, page 49
And how was this to be accomplished? Through a "My McDonald's" campaign whose goal was to make a customer feel that McDonald's "cares about me" and "knows me." [M]arketing alliances with the NBA, the Olympics, and the Walt Disney Company were to be developed, all "intended to create positive feelings about McDonald's." Ads aimed at "minivan parents" would convey that taking your children to McDonald's is "an easy way to feel like a good parent." Food Revolution by John Robbins, page 88
Spam Filters for Your Brain
In Australia, where the number of fast food restaurants roughly tripled during the 1990s, a survey found that half of the nation's nine- and ten-year-olds thought that Ronald McDonald knew what kids should eat. At a primary school in Beijing, Yunxiang Yan found that all of the children recognized an image of Ronald McDonald. The children told Yan they liked "Uncle McDonald" because he was "funny, gentle, kind, and ... he understood children's hearts." Coca-Cola is now the favorite drink among Chinese children, and McDonald's serves their favorite food. Simply eating at a McDonald's in Beijing seems to elevate a person's social status. The idea that you are what you eat has been enthusiastically promoted for years by Den Fujita, the eccentric billionaire who brought McDonald's to Japan three decades ago. "If we eat McDonald's hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years," Fujita once promised his countrymen, "we will become taller, our skin will become white, and our hair will be blonde." Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, page 232
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