McDonald's in hot water over 'Happy Studio' app targeting kids with junk food ads

10 Mar 2019

Public health groups call for Government to step in to regulate food industry 

The Advertising Standards Community Panel (the Panel) found McDonald’s in breach of the Quick Service Restaurant Initiative for Responsible Advertising and Marketing to Children (QSRI) after a complaint by the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC) was upheld.

McDonald’s was found to have directly marketed Happy Meals, including unhealthy Happy Meals, to children via the Happy Studio app, which is a direct contravention of the code to which the company is a signatory.

Executive Manager of the OPC, Jane Martin, welcomed the decision but said the case highlighted how junk food companies are finding new ways to target kids online.

“These companies claim that they don’t market junk food to children, and yet they’re using games, themes and visuals that are clearly designed to entice kids. This is simply marketing dressed up as entertainment and education,” Ms Martin said.

The app, whose primary character is an animated version of the well-known red Happy Meal box, features the famous golden arches logo. Children can ‘scan with Happy Studio’, encouraging children to buy (or pester their parents for) Happy Meals to unlock extra content. The app also lets its primary audience know, “Hey kids, this is advertising”.

“We’re pleased to see the Advertising Standards Community Panel holding McDonald’s to account, however at the end of the day McDonald’s has got off with no penalty,” Ms Martin said.

“McDonald’s has been asked to take the app down, but when hundreds of thousands of children have already been exposed to this junk food marketing it’s too little too late.”

“When around one-third of the average child’s energy intake comes from junk food, we need food companies to comply with advertising codes they have signed up to.”

A typical Happy Meal, including a cheeseburger, small fries and a small coke, contains 2548kJ, 6.68g of saturated fat, more than 900mg of sodium and more than 30g of sugar.

The meal exceeds the nutrition criteria established by the QSRI for total kilojoules and sodium, and constitutes 20% more energy than is recommended for 4-8 year olds.

Ms Martin said that the self-regulatory codes aren’t doing enough to protect children from junk food marketing online.

“This is yet another example of how asking the industry to regulate itself doesn’t work – they make their own rules and then break them. It’s time the government stepped in to stop these companies bombarding our kids online.”

Details of the complaint and decision:

The QSRI states that companies may not advertise their products to children under 14 years in some types of media unless those products represent healthier dietary choices, as determined by the QSRI’s Nutrition Criteria. The Panel found that the app was primarily directed to children and that the product was not a healthier dietary choice.

The OPC argued that the app, which uses child focused, simple animation and messaging in its games and activities, represented a direct violation of the code as it was clearly directed primarily to children.

The information provided by McDonald’s in the ‘About’ section of the app for parents shows that the app is directed primarily to children. It says the app is ‘…created around play that has purpose for children’ and that it is developed with input from child development experts.

McDonald’s talks about the app enabling children to ‘think like an artist, a musician, an inventor’, ‘paint a picture, create a song or build a flying machine’.

The Panel found that the themes, visuals and language of the app would appeal to children. It said the Happy Studio app is clearly branded with McDonald’s material and can be considered to be a marketing communication for McDonald’s.

McDonald’s has stated it will modify the app to comply with the QSRI and will make it available again in mid March.