- Aggressive promotions trigger calls for bans and lawsuits.
- McDonald's wants
to be everywhere that children are.
- So, besides operating thousands of restaurants around
the world, it has plastered its golden arches on Barbie dolls, video games,
book jackets and even theme parks.
- McDonald's calls this promotion and brand extension.
But a growing number of nutritionists call it a blitzkrieg that perverts
children's eating habits and sets them on a path to obesity.
- Marketing fast food, snacks and beverages to children
is at least as old as Ronald McDonald himself. What is new, critics say,
is the scope and intensity of the assault.
- Big foodmakers like McDonald's and Kraft Foods are finding
every imaginable way to put their names in front of children. And they
are spending more than ever - $15 billion last year, compared with $12.5
billion in 1998, according to research conducted at Texas A&M University.
- "What really changed over the last decade is the
proliferation of electronic media," said Susan Linn, a psychologist
who studies children's marketing at the Judge Baker Children's Center at
Harvard University. "It used to just be Saturday morning television.
Now it's Nickelodeon, movies, video games, the Internet and even marketing
- Product tie-ins are everywhere. There are SpongeBob SquarePants
Popsicles, Oreo Cookie preschool counting books and Keebler's Scooby Doo
Cookies. There is even a Play-Doh Lunchables play set.
- While the companies view these as harmless promotional
pitches, lawyers are threatening a wave of obesity-related class-action
lawsuits. Legislators are pressing to lock food companies out of school
cafeterias. Some of the fiercest critics are calling for an outright ban
on food advertising aimed at children.
- "The problem of obesity is so staggering, so out
of control, that we have to do something," said Walter Willett, a
professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "The
vast majority of what they sell is junk," Willett said of the big
foodmakers. "How often do you see fruits and vegetables marketed?"
- The increase in food marketing to children has closely
tracked their increase in weight. Since 1980, the proportion of obese children
in the United States has more than doubled to 16 percent, according to
the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Why would companies take aim at children so energetically?
Because they, increasingly, are where the money is.
- "It's the largest market there is," said James
McNeal, a professor of marketing at Texas A&M and an authority on marketing
to children. "Kids 4 to 12 spend on their own wants and needs about
$30 billion a year. But their influence on what their parents spend is
$600 billion. That's blue sky."
- In toy stores, children can become accustomed to food
brands early by buying a Hostess bake set, Barbie's Pizza Hut play set
or Fisher-Price's Oreo Matchin' Middles game. And, for budding math whizzes,
there is a series of books from Hershey's Kisses on addition, subtraction
- Schools are also a major marketing site. With many U.S.
school districts facing budget squeezes, a quick solution has come from
offering more profitable fast food from outlets like McDonald's, KFC and
- Television remains the most powerful medium for selling
to children. These days there is no shortage of advertising opportunities,
with the emergence of Walt Disney's Disney Channel, as well as Nickelodeon,
which is owned by Viacom, and the Cartoon Network, a unit of AOL Time Warner's
- A series of big marketing alliances has bound food companies
and television show producers like never before. Disney, for instance,
has teamed up with McDonald's on movies and product tie-ins.
- Some marketing deals have come under pressure. Last week
the BBC said it would no longer allow its children's television characters
to be used in fast-food sponsorships with companies like McDonald's after
consumer groups criticized the public broadcaster for helping promote junk
- Some companies deny that they even market to children.
Both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo insist that they direct their products only
at teenagers and adults. And Yum Brands, which operates KFC, Pizza Hut
and Taco Bell, says it does not market to children or have operations in
- But sometimes the evidence would seem to contradict those
statements. Coke signed a multimillion-dollar global marketing deal tied
to the Harry Potter character in 2001, and many schools have contracts
to serve food from Pizza Hut.
- The New York Times
- Copyright © 2003 the International Herald Tribune
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