Ronald McDonald may be an unfamiliar name with today’s kids, but that doesn’t stop them from being brainwashed by junk food messages. From social media to live events, marketing messages are getting a makeover…
You may have seen news reports last week about health groups in the US urging McDonald’s to drop Ronald McDonald from their advertising campaigns. Why? They’re concerned about him encouraging children to eat unhealthily in the light of America’s enormous obesity problem.
In some ways, this seems like old news. Here in the UK there’s been an enormous amount of debate about the way companies market foods to children. As a result, Ronald has a much lower profile and McDonald’s has tried a number of ways to improve its image.
But last week also saw the publication of the Welsh Health Survey headline results. A shocking 19% of children in Wales are obese and the picture’s likely to be similar in the rest of the UK.
Improvements have been made
This is a stark reminder that we can’t become complacent. Companies have been making a lot of changes over the last few years – commitments have been made to reduce salt, for example, and some have also lowered the fat content. A lot of products now carry clearer food labelling and we’ll soon see more information about the calorie content of foods in chain restaurants.
Pressure from Which? and other groups has also helped to tighten up the way that foods are marketed. There are now TV advertising restrictions in place so that foods high in fat, sugar and salt cannot be advertised during programmes of particular appeal to children. So, a big improvement – although it still doesn’t address advertising during family viewing times in programmes like The X Factor.
And when new rules allowed product placement in TV programmes for the first time, we successfully called for unhealthy foods and children’s programming to be excluded.
Plus, individual food companies have made various voluntary commitments to tighten up their act in response to consumer and parental pressure – including McDonalds in the UK, which has reformulated a lot of its products to make them healthier.
Fast food marketing turns sophisticated
So, all good, then? You might think the job was done. But walk into any supermarket, spend some time on the internet or watch any major sporting event – and it quickly becomes clear that children are still being bombarded by a variety of unhealthy food messages.
It’s not hard to miss a great big clown telling children to buy McDonald’s, but food marketing is so much more sophisticated – and increasingly integrated now. Whether it’s via social networking sites, mobile downloads or other viral and word-of-mouth techniques, it’s hard to keep on top of the way that children are targeted.
The advertising industry has its codes that set out good practice. These were recently updated to include digital marketing – so again another positive move.
But a closer examination of all of these responsible-sounding codes and pledges soon reveals far too many loopholes, such as the age of the children (only younger ones) or which foods are classed as unhealthy. From food packaging promotions through to fast food and soft drink company sponsorship of the Olympics, companies are still managing to target children.
The US government is currently trying to tackle this issue. The World Health Organisation has also published a set of recommendations on how to reduce unhealthy food marketing to children. So, isn’t it time we looked at this issue again here in the UK?