Commentary

McDonald's, BK Dispute Study On Ads To Children

A study of national television advertisements for the top 25 quick service restaurant chains that aired between July 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010, charges that McDonald's and Burger King “did not follow through with their self-regulatory promises during the study period,” as a summary posted to the website of its funder, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, states. 

It also finds, among other things, that ads targeting children also were more likely to include strong branding than those aimed at adults and that 69% of ads aimed at kids included mention of toy giveaways.

The study was conducted by the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Cancer Control Research Program at Norris Cotton Cancer Center and published yesterday on PLOS ONE.

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Both McDonald's and Burger King are among the 17 members of the Better Business Bureau’s Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI),” points outAd Age’s Maureen Morrison, which “have pledged to devote 100% of their child-directed advertising to healthier foods and lifestyles, or to not advertise to kids at all,” in alliance with the BBB’s Children's Advertising Review Unit Self-Regulatory Program.

CFBAI director Elaine Kolish says in a statement that its “independent monitoring” shows that both McDonald’s and Burger King “as promised … limited their child-directed advertising to meals meeting meaningful nutrition criteria,” and “also have made improvements in the kids meals they advertise to children” since CFBAI began in 2006.

Morrison also speaks to representatives of McDonald’s and Burger King, who adamantly dispute the findings directly, with McDonald’s pointing out that the data is three years old “and does not accurately reflect our current advertising.”

The researchers compared ads from fast food companies on TV channels targeted to kids with those aired for adults. It found that ads targeted at children emphasized food packaging and street views of the restaurants, whereas adult ads emphasized the images of the food sold there, according to a PLOS release.  

Also, “audio scripts for adult advertisements emphasized food taste, price and portion size, whereas the children's ads focused on movie tie-ins and free toys.” 

“It’s an important inquiry as research has demonstrated that food marketing can influence the choices we make about food,” Krystal D'Costa writes in her “Anthropology in Action” blog for Scientific American. “And children’s tastes in particular can be formed by associations with animated characters leading to brand preference and the establishment of particular consumption habits.”

Meanwhile, “the public-health battle over sugary soft drinks, punctuated by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's failed attempt to ban big sodas, has spread to Mexico, long a stronghold of Coca-Cola Co.,” Amy Guthrie reports in this morning’s Wall Street Journal

El Poder del Consumidor, a public-interest group whose contributors include Bloomberg Philanthropies, sponsored out-of-home advertising in Mexico City this summer “showing 12 heaping spoonfuls of sugar next to a roughly 20-ounce bottle of soda. The ads asked: ‘Would you eat 12 spoonfuls of sugar? Why do you drink soda?’”

Among the familiar defenses being mounted for Coke in Mexico: 

  • No single product is responsible for the obesity epidemic; 
  • Its products are “healthy and can be integrated into a correct diet, combined with an active lifestyle”
  • 40% of its portfolio consists of low- or no-calories beverages
  • It is “transparent” in its marketing so that consumers “can make informed decisions

But “The Real Thing” does occupy a singular position in the Mexican countryside, according to El Poder del Consumidor director Alejandro Calvillo. "If you go to somebody's house and they don't have Coke to offer,” he says. “they apologize. Coca-Cola symbolizes prestige." 

Mexico, which is second only to the U.S. in per capita soda consumption, overtook it earlier this year as the most obese nation in the world. Reflecting on that development a couple of months ago, CNN commentator John D. Sutter pondered whether the “uberfactor” in the development might be that Mexico “is unfortunate enough to share a border with the United States -- land of the Coke, home of diabetes,” as an earlier Economist piece had suggested.

Dr. Juan Rivera, director of the research center on nutrition and health at Mexico's National Public Health Institute, “didn’t blame the United States, but he did blame "sugary beverages," which the United States produces and markets,” Sutter writes.

But he also points to fast food and potato chips as culprits, not only in Mexico but globally and ultimately says, “I would not blame too much on the U.S. The problem is ours, and we have to solve the problem.”

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