As you might guess from the title, today’s post is about McDonalds, and no, this mom's not loving it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed my fair share of fries over the years, but as anyone who has visited SoGood.tv knows, I’m a huge advocate of home cooking. It is a life skill and if you want to maintain health and some control over what you put in your body, you should at least have the know-how to make simple meals from scratch. It is a matter of having choices and then having some measure of skill to execute those choices. It's all about the informed decision.
So, when I learned that Corporate Accountability International (the entity that brought you the Nestle boycott back in the day) was planning a Mother’s Day offensive against McDonalds’ marketing to children, I was all in.
Here’s why: When huge corporations market directly to children, they are intentionally compromising a parent’s ability to make choices for their family’s diet.
Imagine this: Your kid says she wants hamburger from McDonald’s. You can get in your car, drive to your local franchise and get 2 Big Macs for $5 deal plus the new Happy Meal that is advertised EVERYWHERE, or if cooking is an option, you can go to the grocery store, buy antibiotic/hormone free ground beef ($7/pound) and trans fat GMO free buns ($4) and grill four hamburgers, each equivalent in size to the Quarter Pounder.
You are an informed parent and weigh the pros and cons of each choice. McDonalds is fast, easy and “fun.” But it is in no way antibiotic/hormone or GMO free. The sodium/fat/sugar content is higher, though the cost is lower. (Actually, only the price is lower, when you factor in the subsidies, carbon emissions of CAFO’s, the actual cost is quite high, but I digress.)
So, confident cook that you are, you make the choice to use a great recipe you saw online and cook beautiful hamburgers at home. Your kid flips out, throws a tantrum and won’t eat a bite. You send her to her room, knowing this is not the last time you will have this argument, but at least you have a decent lunch.
Some choice. But because your kid, since the age of two, has been exposed to hours and hours of 900 million dollar multi-media marketing campaigns that view you as a “gatekeeper” to be circumvented, the tantrums should come as no surprise. Not saying McDonalds wants your kid to throw tantrums, not at all, but make no mistake, big food works hard to unleash your kid’s “pester power." That's right, an elite cadre of highly trained, highly compensated men and women spend enormous amounts of their professional time, energy and expertise in getting your children to “pester” you to take them to McDonald’s. And guess what, it ain’t about the hamburger.
From Ronald McDonald, to Happy Meals toys, interactive websites, apps, and facebook pages, McDonalds is gaming your choice when it comes to feeding your family, and they are using your kids to do it. Lacking the cognitive maturity (or cynicism) to understand that they are being marketed to, children will, indeed, “pester,” day in and day out, for that McDonalds Happy Meal toy, the burger or nuggets are an after thought.
If you relent thinking one happy meal isn’t going to hurt you (and it won’t,) just know there is no end. Before you know it, there will be a new Barbie or Disney or Hot Wheels toy, another app game, and a new shiny bill board, so the lobbying, (euphemistically called pestering) starts all over again, just as McDonalds’ expected. So nope, this mom’s not loving it!
Let’s be clear, all the swirling vegetable games, stadium sponsorships, the commercials featuring farmers, the now-defunct school literacy programs, and Ronald McDonald branded report card rewards are designed to make kids and parents feel better, no, feel good, about choosing to eat junk.
And if you are looking for federal regulators to regulate marketing to children, as they did with cigarettes and Joe the Camel, don’t bother. For a myriad of reasons that make sense only within the beltway, the Federal Trade Commission’s reach is limited to voluntary restrictions. And by choosing to comply with the voluntary restrictions, McDonalds and other participating QSRs (Quick Service Restaurants) can pat themselves on the back by cherry picking some stats from the FTC Report, while downplaying the troubling ones.
The good news is that food companies have reduced their television advertising. The bad news is that online ad spending has increased by 50%, and heavily integrated campaigns are the new normal. As any blogger knows, you get a lot more bang for your buck when you advertise online, the rates are WAY cheaper. Thanks to another voluntary “pledge” program, this one created by the Better Business Buerau QSRs can “opt in” to a pledge of improving nutrition. It's their choice!
McDonalds Happy Meals now include apples and low fat milk options. They have reduced sodium, and their websites and commercials promote exercise. They are on a Nutrition Journey to be completed by 2020! That is improvement. A serving of (GMO?) apples is better than no apples, but that does not mean happy meals are good nutrition. Far from it. Of course, not using pink slime anymore is better than it was, too. But really, one could only go up from there. Even McDonalds couldn’t spin removal of pink slime into a direct marketing ploy. They limited the announcement to a press release, and the age-old practice of having the press to interview their spokespeople. It worked. (Don’t get me started on the Registered Dieticans, but, again, I digress.)
Of course, there is push back, just like with the soda tax. They cry Nanny State! Individual rights! And my favorite, “it is not our job to parent your children.” Well, if parents had a 900 million dollar integrated multi-media marketing campaign that extolled the benefits of eating real food, I’d agree. We don’t, so cut it out.
I have no illusions that McDonalds has single handedly caused our current obesity epidemic. Individuals must also take responsibility, get informed and make changes. Still, much lies at the feet of our sprawling industrial food complex. Because of an incredible web of federal laws, lack of regulation, inadequate oversight and byzantine subsidies, good nutrition is at direct odds with shareholders profits. This mother’s day, McDonalds gets the heat because they are an industry leader, dare I say pioneer. I am simply asking McDonalds to lead, innovate and use their powers for good. Stop marketing to our kids, get the toys out of the meals, and Retire Ronald. (Keep the apples, though. Just label them if they are GMO. Again, I digress.)