Last month, I participated in an important panel at a childhood obesity conference to discuss the current strategy backed by some advocacy groups: asking industry to market “healthier” foods to children. But as Susan Linn and I recently argued, any marketing to children is harmful, regardless of the product’s nutritional content. Instead of begging corporations to tweak the grams of sugar, fat and salt that these highly processed junk foods contain, we should demand that industry stop exploiting children altogether. Some advocates argue this approach is too radical. But it’s actually far more practical and ultimately more effective because of certain key tactics that industry uses to target children. You can’t put nutrition standards on a clown A nutrition standards approach to marketing to children fails to address the powerful and ubiquitous marketing strategy of branding. When Ronald McDonald goes into elementary schools or anywhere else he may roam, he (in the words of McDonald’s own CEO) “does not hawk food.” Problem solved, right? Except that the very purpose of using Ronald as a brand ambassador is to get children to associate fun and happy times with McDonald’s. This technique is so effective that young children prefer the taste of food wrapped with the McDonald’s logo. This is true even for food McDonald’s doesn’t sell. Here is how researchers described it: “Our findings add to past research by demonstrating that specific branding can alter young children’s taste preferences.” That’s powerful stuff. Another study of 3-to-5-year-old children found that McDonald’s was the most recognized brand, followed by other fast food and soda brands. (The children were shown 50 different brands across 16 product categories.) These researchers seemed surprised that even very young children could recognize brands, “at a much earlier age than previously theorized.” Branding is a key strategy for every corporation trying to build lifelong brand loyalty among impressionable children. They know the key to getting more consumers hooked on their products is to target children as young as possible. There is simply no way to apply nutrition standards to branding. Stealth ads on the internet don’t have nutrient content Another critical way that food corporations such as McDonald’s target children is through “advergaming” websites. For example, you hardly see any food images on, just a lot of fun and games. So improving nutrition standards won’t work there either. Moreover, the name of the game for such sites is to gather information about users, which in this case are unsuspecting children. That’s why the Center for Digital Democracy filed a complaint last year with the Federal Trade Commission charging that McDonald’s and several other food and media corporations violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act by asking children to share their friends’ email addresses. But as Adweek explained, McDonald’s engages in even more aggressive tactics:

McDonald’s website for Happy Meals goes a step further, inviting children to make a music video by uploading their pictures and encouraging them to share the video with up to four friends, who then receive an email from McDonald’s: “You’ve been tagged for fun by a friend! Check it out! It’s a Star in Video at the McDonald’s Happy Meal Website.”

That Happy Meals contain apple slices and milk seems rather irrelevant when you consider how low this corporation will stoop to exploit children. According to McDonald’s internet privacy policy (almost a year after this complaint was filed) the company still encourages children to share friends’ names and email addresses but assures us that such information is deleted after McDonald’s contacts the friend. That’s a relief. Most importantly, research suggests that this sort of stealth advertising can be more effective than traditional television commercials because children are less aware of online ads, probably because they are too busy having fun. According to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation:

From a marketer’s perspective, one of the potential advantages of an “advergame” is the ability to draw attention to your brand in a playful way, and for an extended period of time (at least relative to a 30-second television ad) … On the Internet, the boundaries between advertising and other content may be harder for a child to distinguish. This medium does not have the natural breaks between commercial and non-commercial content which typify television.

That could help explain why the most recent federal government report on food marketing to children suggested that corporations were shifting their advertising spending from television to “new media” such as online, mobile and viral marketing, which are also relatively inexpensive. An incremental approach to ending food marketing to children Some advocates contend that tweaking the nutritional content of foods marketed to children is a good approach because it’s incremental, while stopping marketing altogether is asking for too much. But why must this be the only way to engage in incrementalism? I can think of many incremental alternative solutions to the nutrition approach to food marketing to children. The possibilities are truly endless, starting with the above examples of branding and internet targeting. Let’s take branding. Even if McDonald’s won’t agree to Corporate Accountability International’s demand to Retire Ronald, there are plenty of smaller steps the fast food giant could take right now. For example, Ronald could stop visiting grade schools. I would consider that a pretty huge victory; far better than the addition of apple slices and milk to Happy Meals. Or Ronald’s image could stop appearing on children’s toys. Speaking of toys, McDonald’s could stop including them in Happy Meals. As could other fast food chains like Burger King, which is now promoting its “BK Crown Activity Box” with various toy tie-ins. Imagine, parents buying food for the food, not the toys. These and many other incremental steps the food industry could take to stop targeting children have the advantage of not being dependent on nutrition standards that industry gets to define and manipulate. It’s also far easier to monitor and enforce a policy such as “no advergaming” than one based on grams of salt, sugar and fat. But most importantly, marketing to children is inherently deceptive and harmful and we should demand corporations stop engaging in this unethical behavior. Because that’s the right thing to do. This article was originally published by Corporate Politics International July 8, 2013. 

  • Ryan

    While the industry may bear some responsibility, the ultimate responsibility lies within the parents of the children. The industry and parents cannot expect to force the hand of corporations. It starts and ends with the parents.

  • Tom

    This opinion piece misses a huge factor in advertising to kids: the fact that kids have no money. If you read the above and had never lived in the real world you would think that kids are out there buying happy meals all day long, but of course it is actually up to the parents to purchase food for their children. A company can market all they’d like to my kids, but at the end of the day when they ask to go to McDonald’s every day for lunch, or to eat candy off the ground, or to try to eat the dog, it is up to me to say no, we can only have that every once in a while as a treat (the happy meal, not the other stuff). That not only helps them stay healthy but lets them learn that even though you may see advertising in your life you don’t have to always give in to it, and in fact helps them get ready for their adult lives where they will have to be discriminate in how they react to advertising. Saying you just can’t advertise to kids does little to help them get ready for adult lives where advertising will bombard them all day every day, unless the author also advocates not advertising to adults.

    In the end, it is up to parents to help children learn to navigate through the world, not for you or I to dictate to the world what kind of challenges someone else’s child is allowed to face. Maybe it would be more productive to spend our energy helping educate parents about how to manage this rather than dictating to companies how they are allowed to exercise their first amendment rights.

    • Michael Bulger

      Research has shown an increase in the amount of money that children compared to the amount children of earlier generation had.

      In “the real world”, kids do have money, do buy their own meals, and kids influence the decisions of parents surrounding meals.

  • Stephanie

    This article is a hate-on for McDonald’s, not a piece on marketing to kids. I didn’t see any other brand names mentioned.

    If a cute puppy got kids to eat more broccoli, would THAT be wrong too? That’s “marketing to kids” isn’t it? But this article doesn’t address THAT.

    But yes, McDonald’s is gross and unhealthy. We all agree on that. So the point of THIS article was just to… reiterate that point? I guess?

  • Picky Reader

    Interesting comment by Tom, but I respectfully disagree. I work in schools and you would be surprised how much money children have these days. That’s one reason why marketing to children is becoming more and more popular and more of an issue….they have cash.

  • Elvenrunelord

    I’m all for the radical approach to stop all advertising. I have researched the history of modern adverting and understand that it started with a group who were hired by the US government to create weapons grade propaganda to be used on enemy populations.

    After completing this work they were let go from government service and banded together to form the first advertising firm…

    I would suggest that if your interested in learning more about this you watch two documentaries located at called Psywar, and Human Resources. Psywar is the one most important to the subject of advertising and its influence on human behavior.