Co-authored by Kelle Louaillier
To call McDonald's latest advertising campaign aimed at children cynical doesn't give enough credit to the fast food giant and its ad agency, Leo Burnett. The company says the new series of ads starting this month is part of McDonald's "commitment to promote nutrition and/or active lifestyle messages in 100 percent of its national communications to kids."
How will the purveyor of Big Macs, fries and Coke accomplish this lofty goal? Perhaps by explaining that McDonald's is an occasional treat? Or that sharing home-cooked meals is one of the best ways for families to ensure good eating habits? Perhaps McDonald's could educate kids about the federal MyPlate recommendations to make half your meal fruits and vegetables?
Not even close. McDonald's idea of nutrition education is simple: just eat at McDonald's.
In the first animated ad, a child's pet goat is derided for eating everything in sight, from the kid's baseball to his father's hair. The solution? The goat needs a "better diet," defined by fruit and dairy the ad says -- but where to find such strange items? Jump in the car and head to McDonald's, where the goat becomes "strong as an ox" from downing the apple slices and chocolate milk contained in Happy Meals. The ad ends with the goat chomping on the Happy Meals box. (Apparently, the goat does not eat the child's toy.)
The message sent to children? Everything at home is bad to eat. The place to find healthy food is at McDonald's. In a matter of seconds, McDonald's manages to circumscribe the entire universe of healthy foods to the two items found in a Happy Meal, all under the guise of "nutrition education." You can't get much more twisted than that.
For McDonald's "balanced eating" is accomplished within the confines of the Happy Meal. But apple slices and chocolate milk don't balance out chicken nuggets and French fries, the other two components of the Happy Meal depicted in the ad. (Moreover, by most nutrition standards apples and chocolate milk are actually treats, not staples of a healthy diet in a way that broccoli is, for example.)
Even if the ad campaign was less self-serving and actually attempted to educate children about healthful eating in a meaningful way, this is not McDonald's job.
I don't know any critic of McDonald's that has been begging the company to "to promote nutrition and/or active lifestyle messages" to children. Quite the opposite: We want McDonald's to stop targeting children, period. Stop using toys to lure children, stop promoting Ronald McDonald in schools and communities, and stop marketing to children as young as age two online at websites like Ronald.com, McWorld.com, and HappyMeal.com. We want McDonald's to just get out of the way to let parents do their job to teach children how to eat right.
Notably, in its press release announcing the new campaign, McDonald's felt compelled to reassure the public: "Ronald McDonald will continue to be an ambassador of happiness and joy for children of all ages in ongoing McDonald's advertising and local community programs."
That's a relief, because I was really worried that goat was taking over.
With this new campaign, McDonald's is making a desperate attempt to silence its critics by appearing to care about children's health. But what the fast food giant has actually accomplished is yet one more way to exploit children's emotional vulnerabilities through the use of animals and cartoons.
And parents, your job to help your kids eat right just got even harder.
Please sign this letter urging McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner to stop marketing to children.
Michele Simon is a public health attorney and consultant with Corporate Accountability International. Kelle Louaillier is executive director of Corporate Accountability International.