Is it smart marketing or predatory behavior?

We all know that all fast food restaurants have kid’s menus, but not all of them have specific commercials and advertisements for children.  Now days less of them, chains like Jack in the Box (www.adage.com. 2011) do not offer toys in the kids menu, but McDonald’s still does.  So is McDonald’s conducting great marketing strategies or are they being predatory?

In 2010 a nutrition watchdog group threatened to sue McDonald’s if they did not stop using toys to lure children to its Happy Meals (money.cnn.com).  The Center for Science in the Public Interest felt that McDonald’s has been using unfair and deceptive marketing, they went beyond this to say, “McDonald’s is the stranger in the playgroupd handing out candy to children…..It’s a creepy and predatory practice that warrants an injunction” (money.cnn.com, 2010).  Well, is it creepy and predatory that McDonald’s uses their marketing to attract their young customers?  Is it or is it not a great tactic to market to kids to get them as customers while they are young and keep them as adults?  “Once on board, they would stay for life” (www.foodloversdiary.com).

mcdonalds.gi.top.jpg

McDonald’s spokesman William Whitman disagrees; “We couldn’t disagree more with the misrepresentation of our food and marketing practices” (Money.cnn.com, 2010).  McDonald’s says they are committed to offering a more responsible approach to its menu by offering more choices that include healthy choices.  But seriously, are the kids interested in the apple slices or the fries? As adults do we go to McDonald’s or Jack in the Box for their healthy choices or for the fatty delicious burgers?

Chiquita Apple Bites With Caramel are offered in Jack in the Box kids' meals.

So are organizations like the one blaming McDonald’s for their predatory behavior right? Are the fast food chains responsible for the effects that fast food have on kids, like diabetes and obesity, does the responsibility really lie on the restaurants who market to kids, or are the parents the ones responsible?  What do you think?  Can nutrition groups have a foundation for their claims, or should they be educating parents on what they should allow their children to eat?

AdvertisingAge.  (2011).  “Jack in the Box eliminates toys from kids’ meals”.  Retrieved June 19, 2012 from: http://adage.com/article/news/jack-box-eliminates-toys-kids-meals/228334/

Food Lovers Diary.  (2011).  Clever Burger King to target kids more heavily”.  Retrieved June 19, 2012 from: http://www.foodloversdiary.com/bad-stuff/clever-burger-king-to-target-kids-more-heavily/

Rooney, B. (2010).  McDonald’s warned: Drop the toys or get sued”.  Retrieved June 19, 2012 from: http://money.cnn.com/2010/06/22/news/companies/CSPI_sues_McDonalds/index.htm

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12 Responses to Is it smart marketing or predatory behavior?

  1. Xio – great probing questions.

    In my opinion there is not one entity to blame for the rise in childhood obesity and diabetes. There is one thing certain though, it needs to decline. Since 1980 the number of obese children and adolescence has tripled (CDC, 2012). Now, with 17 percent of U.S. children and adolescence obese, action needs to be taken.

    However, unlike the activists against McDonald’s, it is not the sole responsibility of fast food chains like McDonald’s to stop the epidemic. One factor of the trend would not stop the entire problem. I think the activist group should consider creating a campaign that would target the following:

    – Department of Education (better health classes and PE)
    – FDA (stricter standards for food sold in stores and restaurants)
    – Parents, the adult population
    – Children (create an ad and TV campaign using pro-athletes eating healthy and being active. For example, if LeBron James did a commercial about childhood obesity and the need to be active and healthy, kids would watch. The NBA finals is a hot topic right now).

    Overall, it is not just McDonald’s that is guilty for creating childhood obesity in the nation. I think the activist group is incredibly harsh with its comment: “McDonald’s is the stranger in the playgroup handing out candy to children.” First, McDonald’s isn’t giving away free food to kids; the parents have to pay for it with their own money. Second, McDonald’s isn’t forcing kids to eat their food. The kids are putting it in their mouth. The cause is systemic and singularly McDonald’s fault.

    Reference

    Center for Disease Control. (2012). Childhood obesity facts. Retrieved on June 23, 2013 from http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html

    • Xiomara Moncada says:

      Jessica,
      You are absolutely right, it is not McDonald’s fault that kids are obese and it is unfair that organizations try to blame the chain for what parents should be monitoring. You are right again, the food is not free and the parents are buying it and basically putting it in their kids mouths. Who is responsible? The parents! I am responsible for my kids health, no one else. Thanks for your comment.

      • Lauren Y. Walker says:

        This is a fantastic topic Xio! I don’t think putting a toy in with a happy meal is any more shameful than putting the monopoly pieces on the fries and cokes for the adults…hey, whatever gets you coming back in there…this is what marketing is!!! Quite frankly, the toy is as much for that three year old bellowing from the back seat for it, as it is for the parent who just need ten minutes of uninterrupted peace and quiet to think and if that toy does the trick…everyone is happy.

        Thanks Mickey Ds for doing your due diligence in providing the dollar salads and the apple slices… but really, who are we kidding….I am standing in line for a FRIED apple pie and french fries and one gigantic, bladder busting too sweet(even for me) sweet tea….make no mistake. It is my fault, not McDonald’s for going with the 25 cents more drink that will have me in the comfort station the rest of the afternoon. It is my fault that I have chosen the super size fry when the medium really was more than enough. Just like it is the responsibility of the parents to get those oh so nutritious apple slices for their little cherubs and not the burger and fries meal. Come on, it’s your kid people…take responsibility. You know it’s fattening…you wouldn’t pour lard down your kid’s throat, so why are you driving them through the drive thru. GO HOME and fix them some broccoli! These organizations need to quit…McDonald’s and it’s ad agency has the responsibility to its primary stakeholders( the stockholders). Parents, your primary responsibility is your kid’s well being and health…insuring that. Parent! How about you do what our parents did for us…cook a well balanced meal!??!!

        • Xiomara Moncada says:

          Hi Lauren,
          Love the way you put it! Parents need to do their jobs and that is the bottom line. McDonald’s is doing theirs and that is to make money. ENOUGH SAID!!! 🙂 Thanks for your comment!!

  2. Michele Caldwell says:

    Hi Xio,

    What an interesting topic! You make an excellent point about McDonald’s marketing Happy Meals to children as a sales tactic! Although parents have the choice not to purchase Happy Meals for their children, it is inevitable that they will give in to their children’s unhealthy requests. Fast food restaurants are typically known for their unhealthy menu items; so why do Americans go there? The reasons are self-explanatory. Rather than determining why customers are lured to fast food restaurants, the question is how these chains can help fight against obesity.

    In an effort to end child obesity, San Francisco banned the distribution of toys and other freebies with Happy Meals in 2010 (Martinez, 2010). Eliminating toys from Happy Meals and replacing them with healthy items such as apples is McDonald’s contribution to fight obesity. However, if San Francisco did not enforce this law, would toys still be included with all Happy Meals? Although McDonald’s does not post its sales figures, I would venture to guess that Happy Meal sales have declined in San Francisco since this law was enacted. Parents are still able to purchase Happy Meals for their children without toys or freebies.

    In an effort to promote healthier lifestyles, Disney has discontinued all junk-food advertising on its television stations including Disney-owned ABC (Chmielewski, 2012). Do you think children will be less likely to ask their parents for junk-food if advertisements/commercials are removed from Disney’s stations? This is only one step in Disney’s attempt to end child obesity!

    Thanks for sharing!

    Sources

    Chmielewski, D. C. (2012, June 6). Disney bans junk-food advertising on programs for children. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 23, 2012, from http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jun/06/business/la-fi-ct-disney-food-ads-20120606

    Martinez, M. (2010, November 9). San Francisco bans Happy Meals with toys. CNN. Retrieved June 23, 2012, from http://articles.cnn.com/2010-11-09/us/california.fast.food.ban_1_meal-combinations-apple-dippers-yale-university-s-rudd-center?_s=PM:US

  3. Al Arizmendez says:

    Hi

    Xio, very interesting post. I posted an article on children and learning how to design their own books and games http://buytheway.ascjclass.org/designing-children/#comment-5049) . I intended for it to comment on the trend of educational games and the potential for young kids to design games (and by extension, become familiar with programming basics) but there were some additional comments about how much is too much marketing geared at kids? Many folks, like the CSPR apparently think McDonalds marketing is.

    In a recent study just pulled from ProQuest, the authors assert that failure to implementing marketing with social responsibility in mind may portend negative results to the company as well as society as a whole (Chitakorknjsil, 2012). I wonder as more study on the issue of ethics, CSR and marketing come to fore, will these cutting-edge marketing experts whose brands we know, love and/or respect make socially affirming marketing decisions amidst a more competitive and global economy? Do we have a responsibility as part of a new breed of communicators to solely facilitate their messages or provide context, background and counsel to educate clients and employers?

    Chitakornkijsil, P. (2012). Brand integrity, advertising and marketing ethics as well as social responsibility. International Journal of Organizational Innovation (Online), 4(4), 109-130. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1011813173?accountid=14749

  4. Neda Assadi says:

    Xiomara –

    Great article, and a good example of organizations and corporate social responsibility. Is it just me or is McDonald’s constantly a media target? I get why this is happening…the organization is one of the biggest fast food operations in the world. People like to analyze those that are most in the spotlight. And might I add, those that are doing well.

    A global brand that has become a part of pop culture, McDonald’s is an all-around business dream machine. I’m a big fan of the company because it’s created a brand that’s permeated across languages, cultures, and countries. People simply love the food. Very few brands have achieved such success, and for that I raise my glass to the organization.

    I am complete advocate for healthy eating and an active lifestyle, so I understand the opposition from various nutrition groups. These groups are using the right strategy by targeting McDonald’s, as it will get their message out to the highest platform possible. But I don’t think they should be targeting McDonald’s and its operations in particular. Simply stated, McDonald’s has completely revamped its menu and has a really great program that caters specifically to getting mom’s quality approval.

    Going to the website, one can see that McDonald’s really understands the power it has to influence lifestyle habits. Its making a solid steps to communicate its efforts consumers. McDonald’s has a group called Mom’s Quality Correspondents, where it brings together moms and dads from across the U.S., all in an effort to promote its quality food. Here’s a cull from the site:

    “Like you, moms everywhere want to know that they’re providing quality, nutritious food to their families. A few years ago, we launched Moms’ Quality Correspondents, an exciting project to address questions that moms—and dads—have been asking about what their kids are eating. Representing real families from across the country, a group of moms came with different backgrounds but a common concern: they care about what their kids eat.”

    And here is a powerful excerpt from an Arkansas Mom Correspondent, Tonia Welling:

    “Moms should know that they can choose, and help their children choose, healthier options at any restaurant. I love the Big Mac sandwich just the same as everyone else, but I know, and now my children know, you can’t eat it everyday. Balance is the key to any eating regimen.

    Nutrition is also at the root of their creations. McDonald’s is not shy about labeling their food products. The “build a meal” page on their Web site and nutrition information on tray liners in their restaurants shows they aren’t trying to hide what they sell.”

    These statements are examples of an organization working to communicate change, and consumers who understand that there are healthier options that McDonald’s offers. It doesn’t hide the fact that it provides food that if consumed excessively, isn’t healthy for you. But it also offers plenty of healthy alternatives.

    As McDonald’s says on the Happy Meal page of its website, “You want the very best for your kids, and so do we.”

    It’s ultimately the responsibility of the parent to control what their children eat. As marketers, McDonald’s will push to sell its products. It’s the nature of business. But as mentioned, it offers healthy alternatives. If a child wants a Happy Meal, they get apple slices and can choose fat free chocolate milk, low fat milk, or apple juice. There are options! Again, I think its a solid effort by the nutritional groups to advocate their beliefs, but it should go broad and focus on healthy eating and lifestyles in the general sense. Not just focused on McDonald’s.

    It’s ultimately about organizations informing the consumer. That I believe is a corporate social responsibility that McDonald’s must adhere to, and its doing that.

    So I wouldn’t call its marketing “creepy”” or predatory.” I would relay those terms to brands such as Camel cigarettes. Do remember Joe Camel? The cartoon mascot that was basically marketing cigarettes as fun for everyone? That is “creepy” and “predatory.” A classic example of exploiting a misperception to capitalize on sales. Kids see an animated Camel and compare it to the likes of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Ridiculous, terrible, and poor corporate social responsibility.

    Happy to know that at least McDonald’s is understanding of effective and appropriate business offerings, and is making the effort to cater to a consumer that wants value, and wants healthy value.

    • Xiomara Moncada says:

      Neda, I agree with you, McDonald’s is doing what is social responsible and that is to inform people. They are also offering more healthier food that all costumers have the option to buy, if they don’t it is their decision. McDonald’s and other fast food chains have done what they are required to do.

      I also agree that they are not creepy or predatory, they are a business and they want to make money. Thank you for your comment.

  5. Lauren McCarthy says:

    You pose some great questions. As far as who is to blame for the child obesity, I would have to point my finger at the parents. Making a sandwich for your child is just as easy as running through McDonald’s on your way home from work. If you do run through McDonald’s instead, ordering apple slices instead of fries doesn’t cost a dime more. Ordering a milk for your child instead of a Coke also doesn’t cost a dime more.

    While I don’t have kids of my own yet, I do have two nieces who really love McDonald’s. Going there is a treat; it’s not something they expect for dinner or lunch every day, and when they do go, it’s apple slices and milk. I think if the parent sets the precedent from the get-go that nutrition is important, kids understand it also. It’s not just McDonald’s, though: it’s also Chick-fil-a, Whataburger, Burger King and every other fast food joint out there. If parents treat these restaurants as special treats and not every day meals, kids will come to see bad food as something that is a once-in-a-while type of thing instead of the norm.

    You also have to look at it from McDonald’s point of view: the point of a business is to make money, right? If they advertise happy meals, talk about their playgrounds and have fun cartoon characters, kids are going to want to go to the restaurants. I can’t fault McDonald’s or any other fast food chain for wanting to make a buck; I can fault the parents for giving into their kids’ every wish and feeding them unhealthy food.

    • Xiomara Moncada says:

      Lauren,
      I agree with you, it’s the parents responsibility to watch what their kids eat, but McDonald’s and other fast food chains do make it hard for them to do their jobs. As a parent it is sometimes easier to just go to the drive-thru and give the kids what they want. I have done it, I have gone to the drive-thru because I didn’t have the time or it was easier. I don’t do it often, but I do catch myself doing it. My daughter knows that McDonald’s is a treat and I like to keep it that way. 🙂

  6. Dawn Whitaker says:

    Xio–

    Very interesting post! I must admit that while I was reading, I had flashbacks about my own experiences with this very topic. Your focus seemed to be on the marketing tactic of using TOYS to lure children to want, desire, ask for, whatever the Happy Meal, rather than necessarily the nutritional value of a McDonald’s Kid’s Meal vs a Jack-in-the-Box Kid’s Meal (or a Wendy’s Kid’s Meal, for that matter). I totally get that and as a mother of three, I can’t tell you how many times my children decided what they wanted to eat based on which TOY was included. Trust me, I have cursed (silently) McDonald’s many a night for their utilization of this tactic.

    Mom: “Sweetie, we need to grab dinner on the way home; do you want Burger King?”
    Kid: “Well, what TOY do they have?”

    Yes, it is ultimately the parent’s decision what to buy or not to buy, but it makes it very difficult when McDonald’s has Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, and Wendy’s has a crossword puzzle. McDonald’s it is (for the TOY) and the food usually ends up in the trash anyway because afterall…they just wanted the TOY.

  7. Xiomara Moncada says:

    Dawn, I totally can sympathize with you, it’s so much easier to get the kids what they want then to argue with them after a long day. But as parents we need to do better for our kids. We have to be more responsible to them, their health is so important. Like you said, if all they wanted was the toy, get them the the apples and the milk that comes with the meal so that they eat a bit healthier and they get their toy. That way we are being a bit more responsible and they get what they want. I know this is easier said than done, I still struggle with it!!