Fast Food Mania

by Ellery Spencer

Children and adults of all ages can recall spotting McDonald’s tall, eye-catching, golden arches from a mile down the highway and wanting nothing more than crispy, warm fries to dunk in a thick, creamy chocolate milkshake.  Whether it is a quick after school snack for youngsters, a late night drive-through run with friends, or a make shift dinner because mom didn’t feel like cooking that night, fast food has been seamlessly integrated into the American society as a common, household food source.  George Ritzer’s The McDonaldization of Society, attributes the popularity and success of fast food restaurants to the “increasing influence of the mass media” (42).  Much of this mass media specifically targets children in an attempt to make them life long consumers of fast food products.  This targeted advertising has led to a steadily increasing rate of childhood obesity over the years, and it is becoming more and more necessary that measures be taken to protect the health of children.  Government regulation of fast food advertising that specifically targets children is necessary to combat the rise in childhood obesity and related diseases such as diabetes.

Research and data show that while the increasing influence of media has had a positive effect on the success of fast food restaurants, it has had measurable consequences, such as obesity and poor nutrition, on fast food consumers.  According to the Healthy People 2010 report, childhood obesity attributable to an unhealthy diet is increasing in prevalence worldwide, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have labeled this increase an epidemic (Harrison and Marske).  Studies show that about one in seven white children and one in four African-American and Latino children in the United States are currently overweight or obese (Harrison and Marske).  The spread of childhood obesity has been linked to the spread of modernization, one component of which is television advertising.  In one study, convenience/fast foods and sweets comprised 83% of advertised foods and snack time eating was depicted more often than breakfast, lunch, and dinner combined (Harrison and Marske).  Another study showed that the average child views over 40,000 commercials per year, mostly for toys, cereals, candies, and fast foods (Harrison and Marske).  All of these advertised foods exceed recommended daily values of fat, saturated fat, and sodium, and fail to provide recommended daily values of fiber and certain vitamins and minerals (Harrison and Marske).  As early as 1985, children’s television consumption was linked to an increased risk for obesity.  This link continues to receive support in recent reports, including research that demonstrates an association between childhood television viewing and adult obesity (Harrison and Marske).

The association between childhood television viewing and obesity can be attributed to the fact that fast food advertising is specifically designed to target children.  Ronald McDonald, McDonald’s spokesclown in advertising, was created in 1967 to specifically target children in the advertising of fast food.  McDonald’s boasts that Ronald McDonald is more recognizable than Santa Claus.  According to Raj Patel, with a wink and a smile, Ronald McDonald has “charged into neighborhoods around and inside schools, plumbing every depth to keep his parent company’s arches golden and bright in the minds of impressionable young eaters” (Patel).  In his article, “Down With the Clown,” Patel argues that this kind of advertising is far closer to brainwashing, as children are unjustly subjected to Ronald McDonald’s manipulations.  Patel states that corporations spend $17 billion a year turning children into consumers, and for every dollar spent promoting healthy food, $500 is spent promoting junk (Patel).  Patel contends that fast food corporations hide behind the fact that their advertising is freedom of speech, and that the corporations clearly declare their commercial intentions in order to justify the brainwashing qualities of their advertisements to young children.

In a study about fast food advertising however, cognitive research showed that fast food companies could not use freedom of speech to legitimize their advertising.  A thought-provoking article, published in Health Affairs, discusses the need for government intervention to prevent the marketing of unhealthy food to children, explains that legal courts apply a test, known as the Central Hudson Test, to determine if an advertising regulation violates American citizens’ right to freedom of speech outlined in the First Amendment.  This test ensures that advertising that promotes illegal activity, is false, or inherently misleading, is exempt from media and publications.  Government has the authority to ban advertising to children outright, or to restrict food advertising if the advertising is actually misleading because there is evidence to show that is it misunderstood by its intended audience.  The article states that in order for children to comprehend advertising, they must be able to discern advertising messages from other media content.  This study found that 83% of children ages 3-5 could correctly apply the label of “a commercial” to an animated cereal ad embedded in an animated children’s program (Graff, Kunkel, and Mermin).  Upon further probing, however, only 28% understood that the commercial was not part of the story in the program they were watching.  This shows that if children cannot identify advertising at a perceptual level, they cannot apply any critical perspective to the information conveyed in advertising messages and are therefore more likely to accept commercials as accurate and truthful.

In addition to being able to distinguish between advertising and other media content, a child must also be able to recognize the persuasive intent of commercial messages.  This requires the child to take the perspective of another into account, and be able to comprehend abstract concepts.  Both of these are very difficult tasks for young children.  Extensive research finds that most children younger than age eight do not recognize selling intent, while the majority of those older than age eight typically do (Graff, Kunkel, and Mermin).  Selling intent refers to the viewer’s ability to distinguish between a company’s intent to inform a viewer or persuade the individual to buy their product.  One study reports that only 25 percent of eight-year-olds and 36 percent of ten-year-olds demonstrate mature understanding of persuasive intent when measures addressing perceptions of bias are taken into account (Graff, Kunkel, and Mermin).  Basic psychological research shows that children do not become skeptical or cynical of persuasive claims made by the source of any message until roughly ages 11–12 (Graff, Kunkel, and Mermin).  The inability of young children to master these concepts means that the child cannot effectively comprehend advertising.  This renders the advertising inevitably misleading, and therefore, the study concludes that this is “beyond the scope of constitutional protection” (Graff, Kunkel, and Mermin).

In fact, one mother from Sacramento California, is filing a class action lawsuit aimed at stopping McDonald’s use of toys to market directly to young children.  She states that McDonald’s uses toys as bait to reel her kids, which fosters a preference for nutritionally poor Happy Meals.  Fast food companies, with McDonald’s by far in the lead, spend over $520 million in 2006 on advertising and toys to market children’s meals, and toy premiums made up almost three-quarters of those expenses, totaling over $350 million (“Class Action Lawsuit”). According to the Center for Science and Public Interest (CSPI) litigation director, Steve Gardner, “every time McDonald’s markets a Happy Meal directly to a young child, it exploits a child’s developmental vulnerability and violates several states’ consumer protection laws” (“Class Action Lawsuit”).  Even though Happy Meals television advertising shows brief glimpses of healthier products, such as Apple Dippers and low-fat milk, the default Happy Meal options are usually French fries and sugary sodas.  In a CSPI study of 44 McDonald’s outlets, French fries were automatically included in Happy Meals 93 percent of the time, and soft drinks were the first choice offered to customers 78 percent of the time (“Class Action Lawsuit”).  McDonald’s use of toys to market to children is beginning to come under scrutiny by local officials, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently passed an ordinance setting nutrition standards for children’s meals sold with toys.  CSPI is urging other jurisdictions to consider similar legislation to prevent the Happy Meal from promoting weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and a lifetime of poor dieting.

Legislation that restricts fast food advertising in children’s magazines and television programs is being implemented in other parts of the world as part of the drive to reduce childhood obesity.  In 2006, Britain’s media watchdog, Ofcom, announced a total ban on advertisements promoting foods high in fat, salt, and sugar during children’s television programs and on children’s channels.  Ofcom additionally planned to restrict the way fast food and snack companies promoted their brands in children’s publications.  Similar limitations were also being considered for advertisements on billboards, radio, and the internet.  As a result of these pending restrictions, Burger King announced it was to stop advertising during children’s programs and would cease to produce television advertisements directly aimed at children in the United Kingdom.  Giogio Minardi, divisional vice-president of north-west Europe at Burger King states, “we will concentrate our marketing promotions on the outstanding quality of our food as well as consumer choice” (qtd. in “Fast Food Ads” 10).

Effective government regulation banned Joe Camel from tobacco advertising in 1997 because he was a controversial marketing tool that targeted children.  According to Jodie Bernstein, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) bureau of consumer protection, “Joe Camel has become as recognizable to kids as Mickey Mouse.  Yet the campaign promotes a product that causes serious injury, addiction and death” (Fitzgerald).  The advertising campaign was successful in appealing to many children and adolescents under 18, and induced many young people to begin smoking or to continue smoking cigarettes.  The FTC maintained that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the seller of Camel cigarettes, “promoted an addictive and dangerous product through a campaign that was attractive to those too young to purchase cigarettes legally” (Fitzgerald).   After the campaign began, the percentage of kids who smoked Camels grew larger than the percentage of adults who smoked Camels.  This fact alone demonstrates that while advertising that targets children is very effective and economically beneficial for the advertising company, it is incredibly dangerous and unjust because it can lead to poor health decisions and health consequences for the consumer.

United States Senator Joe Lieberman recognizes the dangers and consequences of advertising that targets children saying that food companies are “literally feeding an epidemic of  obesity” (qtd. in “Lieberman On Attack” 4).  While making a political speech in New Hampshire in 2003, Lieberman insisted that it is time to “stand up to the companies marketing to children products that can be harmful to their health” (qtd. in “Lieberman On Attack” 4).  Senator Lieberman called on the Federal Trade Commission to develop standards for disclosure of high-fat, high-sugar, or low-nutrients in ads directed to children.  The senator unveiled the attack as part of his “valuing families” agenda with an accompanying fact sheet saying government has a “moral obligation to parents” to act, because these advertisements are effectively reaching children, and causing widespread malnutrition, and obesity.  Many, however, have criticized Lieberman saying his heart is in the right place, but his plan to focus on the advertising and marketing sector is misguided.  Tom Foulkes, manager-media relations for the National Restaurant Association criticized Lieberman’s efforts saying that the senator “is missing the target here.  Rather than increased regulation of advertising, the time might be better spent on promotion of healthy diets and lifestyles to all Americans” (qtd. in “Lieberman On Attack” 4).  What this alternative does not consider, however, is that advertising guides daily decisions regarding food, health, and nutrition choices.  While a campaign for healthier diets and lifestyles may be beneficial, it does not eliminate the root of the problem that food based advertising is causing.

Other critics of government regulation of advertising would argue that it is the responsibility of parents to monitor their child’s food consumption.  Individuals who believe this fail to recognize that food purchases are often directly influenced by children’s requests.  Studies show that children aged 14 years and younger influence the purchase of $190 billion in family goods (Harrison and Marske).  Both children and parents are deceived by nutrient-poor food television advertisements because these advertisements often feature messages implying that the advertised products are beneficial.  For example, the implication that such foods possess health benefits, such as fat free or reduced sodium options, though not completely false, may nonetheless confuse children and their parents about what food is healthy and nutritious.

Food advertising that specifically targets children plays a vital role in the childhood obesity epidemic sweeping the nation.  Evidence shows that this type of advertising is unjust, as children are unable to comprehend and interpret the persuasive intent of the messages they see daily on television and in magazines.  Many have already began to combat fast food advertising by denouncing Ronald McDonald, filing lawsuits against Happy Meals, banning food advertising from children’s media in Britain, and encouraging individuals to stand up to the companies marketing to children products that can be harmful to their health.  Though in most instances, these measures have had positive and effective outcomes, it is becoming more and more necessary that the government intervenes and creates standards for fast food advertising.  Such standards include regulating advertisements on children’s television programs, stations, and magazines.  Government regulation was employed to ban Joe Camel, a controversial marketing tool that targeted children in cigarette ads, because the percentage of underage consumers who smoked grew significantly after the campaign began.  Like smoking, obesity can cause serious heath implications such as diabetes, and government concern for these implications is absolutely necessary for the well being of society’s youth.

Works Cited

“Class Action Lawsuit Targets McDonald’s Use of Toys to Market to Children.”  States news      Service 15 Dec. 2010.  Academic OneFile.  Web.  6 Apr. 2012.

“Fast-Food Ads Banned from Children’s Magazines.”  Caterer & Hotelkeeper.  196.4452 (2006):    11.  Business Source Complete.  Web.  11 Apr. 2012

Fitzgerald, Nora.  “All Fired Up.”  Adweek Western Edition 47.23 (1997): 22.  Business Source Complete.  Web.  11 Apr. 2012.

Graff, Samantha, Dale Kunkel, and Seth E. Mermin.  “Government can Regulate Food     Advertising to Children Because Cognitive Research Shows that it is Inherently       Misleading.”  Health Affairs.  31.2 (2012): 392-98.  Web.  20 Mar. 2012.

Harrison, Kristen, and Amy L. Marske.  “Nutritional Content of Foods Advertised During the     Television Programs Children Watch Most.”  American Journal of Public Health 95.9             (2005) 1598-1574.  Business Source Complete.  Web.  20 Mar. 2012.

“Lieberman On Attack Against Fast-Food Ads; Industry Defends Against Charge.”  Advertising      Age 8 Dec. 2003: 4.  Academic OneFile.  Web. 11 Apr. 2012.

Patel, Raj. “Down with the clown: it’s time for Ronald McDonald to retire.” Dollars & Sense

May-June 2010: 6. Academic OneFile. Web. 20 Mar. 2012.

Ritzer, George.  The McDonaldization of Society 6.  6.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press,    2010.