June 5, 2013 by Tamara Piety
This item appeared in the Tulsa World last month concerning criticism of its marketing practices at its annual shareholders meeting. At the meeting advocates asked for McDonald’s to be removed from hospitals and some criticized its attempts to target minority audiences by signing up celebrities like Gabby Douglas. One 9-year old girl apparently asked CEO Don Thompson to stop “tricking kids into eating your food.”
A look at the comments which follow the article illustrate the common reaction to such complaints – that no one forces anyone to patronize fast food restaurants, that businesses ought to be free to run their businesses as they see fit, that parents not children are responsible for what children eat.
What these comments miss is that much of the advertising and marketing makes it almost impossibly difficult to prevent McDonald’s and other fast food marketers from reaching and influencing children. Pitches for McDonald’s and other fast food are included in children’s entertainment and often in school and at their friends’ homes even if parents manage to keep it out of their own homes. So even if you don’t buy your children fast food it may be hard to keep them from importuning you to buy it. And advertisers are counting on “the nag factor” to run down parents’ resistance. It may be particularly hard for low-income parents with little time, energy or money to cook. And any parent who is pressed for time is surely tempted by the “fast” part of fast food. John Hopkins researchers (among others) have suggested that “[t]o address childhood obesity, it may be necessary to limit the amount of food and beverage advertising shown on commercial television and other media, as this may lessen children’s nagging for unhealthy items.”
Nobody argues that children are just little adults when it comes to advertising (okay, few people argue that. This might be a particularly startling exception.) Some scholars, like Kevin Saunders at Michigan State University, think we have gone astray in terms of the First Amendment jurisprudence and children. See Saving Our Children From the First Amendment. What is with using cartoon characters like Ronald McDonald – a character clearly not intended to persuade or appeal to adults – to persuade children? Isn’t there something a little inherently unfair, not to say creepy about that? For example, see this Mark Bittman column on the issue “The Right to Sell Kids Junk” (citing my co-author Samantha Graff!) Bittman writes, “It’s easy to get lost in the Constitution and forget that we’re talking about children being bombarded by propaganda so clever and sophisticated that it amounts to brainwashing, for products that can and do make them sick.”
Moreover, those commenting overlook the fact that this article was reporting on comments made at a shareholders’ meeting, that is, by shareholders or to shareholders about self-governance matters and what, as a group, the shareholders should do with respect to corporate decision-making.
But the resistance to the suggestion that there is anything wrong about pushing these food to children is strongly resisted, perhaps because today’s parents were raised in an environment totally saturated by this sort of advertising and commercialism so it seems normal even a matter for nostalgia.
That doesn’t bode well for any future change even though McDonald’s CEO asserts McDonald’s wants to be part of the solution.
Perhaps he is thinking of a different line of business….