McDonald’s restaurants in Seminole County, Fla. are now advertising Happy Meals on elementary students’ report cards. It’s a partnership between the Seminole County School Board and the fast food chain that rewards students who excel in grades, citizenship or attendance with burgers, fries and a soft drink. This is an all-time low for the fast food industry, and comes on the coattails of promises from top food companies to ease marketing of food products high in fat toward children under the age of 12.
In the past two decades the number of obese children has more than doubled in the United States. During this same time period, food companies have drastically increased the amount spent on advertising and marketing fatty food products toward children, spending more than $10 billion in 1999 on direct advertising, promotions and product branding. This link is not inconsequential; advertisers spend the money because it works.
Last June, in response to pressure from consumer and health groups, major food companies such as McDonald’s and Burger King publicly recognized their important role in curbing the childhood obesity epidemic and created self-regulating guidelines in conjunction with the Better Business Bureau to ease their marketing of fatty foods toward children. One such regulation states that companies will “commit to not advertising food or beverage products in elementary schools.”
Yet, it appears that the “self-regulation” is nothing more than a PR stunt. Companies such as McDonald’s just can’t keep their hand out of the cookie jar when there’s a profit to be made and a demographic to turn into loyal consumers.
Other countries, such as Sweden, have long since deemed advertising toward children under the age of 12 unethical and have banned ads toward children altogether. Our country views children as a major market force rather than a sensitive demographic in need of protection from persuasive consumer messages, especially those that encourage unhealthy lifestyles.
What if, instead of rewarding good grades with McNuggets, we gave students a free trip to the zoo, a free book or a chance to start a community garden? Surely the $1,500 McDonald’s saved the school district could be collected from more productive sources.