When Bozo the Clown went off air in 1963, no one would have guessed the small-town television character would soon become the most famous clown in the world. But McDonald's turned Bozo into Ronald McDonald, and today he's recognized by more than 90 percent of school children in the United States.
For decades now, the company has used the creepy clown to target kids, but it's not the company's only trick. Ronald is just one of the many ways that McDonald's targets children, from product partnerships with Pixar to its HappyMeal.com website. (I love that its tagline says, "eating fruit & dairy is fun" -- even though most of the fresh produce you see on the website is actually nowhere to be found on a McDonald's menu. Ah, details).
So, yes, McDonald's may be an industry innovator when it comes to marketing to kids, but it's no outlier. The food industry knows that targeting kids is effective: hook 'em early, and you build brand loyalty for life. Plus, kids are more vulnerable to ads. Their young minds are unable to put up the kinds of defenses to advertising we can.
The more I learned about the harmful impact of marketing to kids, the more I wanted to do something. So that's why I teamed up with Corporate Accountability International and the rest of my Food MythBusters coalition of leading food and farming organizations to take on this problem.
In our latest mythbusting movie, launching September 25th, we expose the junk-food industry's manipulative tactics and show how communities around the country are stepping up to create a more healthful food environment for all children. At a time when this generation of kids is facing unprecedented illnesses because of the food and drinks they consume, this issue has severe health consequences.
Big Food plays the blame game
Now, the food industry likes to blame parents for the epidemic of diet-related illnesses. Sure, Big Food may spend nearly $2 billion a year on marketing directly to children and teens, but it's ultimately parents who are choosing what their kids eat and drink... right?
Of course, it's the parents' responsibility to make sure their children are healthy. But it's also our nation's responsibility to make sure the environment we parent in doesn't make it difficult, and in some cases impossible, to do so.
Let's be real: Big Food and its PR machine are pushing high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar foods and drinks on our kids all the time -- the very products at the heart of this generation's health problems.
And while we parents are charged with ensuring our kids make healthy choices, our work is being made more difficult for us by the advertising might of Big Food. The reality is kids are bombarded at every age with exploitive advertising telling them junk food is cool to eat.
This marketing goes well beyond ads on TV. If only it were as easy as just turning off the TV or tossing it out. Today, junk-food marketing to kids is everywhere -- from public schools to sports events to specially branded websites like HappyMeal.com. Parents and communities across the country cannot and should not have to compete with multibillion-dollar corporations trying to sell junk to our kids. We shouldn't have to worry about what logos and ads they'll be bombarded with when they go to school or have fun on the playground.
Busting the myth of personal choice
What's exciting to me is hearing about how communities have come together to roll back the deluge of marketing to kids. Across the country parents and advocates for children and have spoken up with clear voices, making clear to the food industry that our kids are none of its business.
You'll hear some of these stories in my latest mythbusting movie, launching on September 25th, which lifts the veil on the food industry's myth of personal choice.
Tune in at 5 p.m. PST (8 p.m. EST) on September 25th and join our Food MythBusters team on Twitter and Facebook for a live chat following the screening. You can sign up to watch it here.
This piece originally appeared in Civil Eats.