/ Food & Drink, Parenting

Kids’ junk food marketing gets an ugly makeover

Ronald McDonald figure

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?


Not in this context, we should look at it again but from a different angle.

Which? have done so much for campaigns like this, I feel that there might not be anything else possible, unless perhaps you get a bit creative?

Really, the problem is not advertising, or Wayne Rooney or the planet alignments or whatever needs to be blamed this week. It’s the parents, simple, easy, etc

But that would mean campaigning for people to take responsibility for their own actions. I enjoy a burger from time to time, but if there are fat kids in McD’s they are always accompanied by a fat adult. Are we conveniently ignoring this?

Quite simply, and I know this may be controversial, but if you can’t keep your kid in a healthy diet, you don’t deserve to have kids and they should be removed from your care.

Honestly, lets stop blaming kids or marketing or some other social evil, we should be using the blamethrower on parents and their inability to look after their children correctly.

Dean – You are brave to point the finger at parents, and it is high time that someone did. Of course many parents do their best and hopefully they will realise that your comments don’t relate to them!

We have a lot of fat kids, and many fat adults too. I hope education of children and adults will solve the problem, or gastric bypass surgery could be as routine as cateract operations.

Sophie Gilbert says:
1 June 2011

(Some) fat kids may be victims of their own parents, but I feel that it has to be accepted that (some) fat parents are victims themselves, among others things of marketing and of being human (we all crave fat and sugar; some of us are better at resisting this crave than others). Otherwise we get into the realm of “they deserve everything they get” or “look at me, I’m holier than thou”. Providing education is one of the steps in the right direction, sure, but stealthy, clever marketing has to be tackled too.

I agree that parents need to take on a big part of the responsibility. I’m constantly amazed when I see kids in pushchairs eating McDonalds or munching their way through a bag of sweets.

But, there comes an age when parental influence only counts for so much. At the moment I can quite easily control my 3-year-old’s diet, but I know it’s going to get harder and harder as she starts school, makes friends and eventually is old enough to go out independently. This is when all the things that Sue is talking about really start to get worrying.

grumpyGeek says:
1 June 2011

Yes there is a fear that once they start school and choose their own friends things can get out of control. But I can tell you that doing your best while you can does pay off. I can’t see this “bombardment” anywhere. I just don’t make them watch commercial tv and don’t buy anything that has a strong branding. It’s really easy if you keep at it, and it gets easier with time.

My little ones just don’t like McDonald food, we bought it once or twice in five years and they were only interested in the toy in the box. They have no idea of what that brand means to million of children. It’s just some place that sells food they don’t like. There is no such a thing as a bombardment and we can do our best for them to think independently.