Back to the naughty corner: McDonald's breaches marketing to kids codes again

2 Apr 2020

Health experts call for tougher food industry regulation to protect kids

A McDonald’s advertisement has been pulled after The Advertising Standards Community Panel (the Panel) found the company 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.

Given Australia’s obesity problem, the company’s advertisement, titled ‘Denise’, was found to have directly marketed high fat, salt and sugar meals to children, which is a contravention of the code to which the company is a signatory.

Executive Manager of the OPC, Jane Martin, welcomed the decision but said this is not the first time McDonald’s has had to be reprimanded over their irresponsible marketing tactics.  

“This ad focuses entirely on a little girl who, after getting into mischief, is 'rewarded' for fixing her bad behaviour with a trip to McDonald’s for a toy and a Happy Meal; a very covert pester power tactic.”

“McDonald’s may claim that the themes of family togetherness and children being cheeky are designed to appeal broadly to adults as well as children. Yet the entire ad is from the perspective of a child, encouraging children to behave in ways that result in their parents rewarding them with a visit to McDonald’s.”

At a time when families are indoors more than usual and screen time is most likely to increase, Ms Martin said it is now more important than ever for governments to introduce higher standards to protect children from the sneaky marketing tactics promoting unhealthy food brands.

“We know that unhealthy food and drink marketing directly impacts what children eat and what they pester their parents for. The current codes have been developed by companies, including McDonalds, but they are still not complying with them. We need government regulations to provide a level playing field of all marketers and to increase the amount of healthy food marketing.”

“Companies like McDonald’s continue to use sophisticated tactics in promoting unhealthy food and drinks packed with cheap ingredients like sugar, salt and fat to children to bolster their profits.”

Details of the complaint and decision:

The advertisement focuses on a young girl making up for her bad behaviour by removing arrows from photos of her brothers, washing pink dye out of the family dog’s fur, painting over the slogan ‘Brothers are…’ on the cubby house and retrieving car keys from a fish tank in order to earn a family meal at McDonald’s.

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. Under the QSRI an advertisement can be to children because of its content (themes, visual and language) or its placement (more than 35% of the audience of the ad is children).

The Panel agreed with the OPC’s view that the ad did not represent healthier dietary choices, with a burger and chips featuring prominently in the foreground.

The Panel agreed that the ad was directed primarily to children because it had been played in spots where children represented over 35% of the audience.

The Panel did not agree that the content of the ad (its themes, visuals and language) was directed primarily to children.  This was despite the ad featuring a young child, promoting Happy Meals (a children’s product), being depicted from the point of view of the child and showing the child being rewarded for mischievous behaviour. The Panel instead found the ad had general appeal to both adults and children.

Whilst the ad was found to be in breach of the QSRI this was because it was shown in a handful of instances where children were in fact more than 35% of the audience and not because the Panel found the ad itself to be directed primarily to children.

Ms Martin said this case exposes just how narrow the interpretation of ‘directed primarily to children’ is and on a larger scale, how these self-regulatory codes fail to protect children from exposure to unhealthy food marketing.

“It’s naïve to entrust our children’s health to the same companies that are actively encouraging them to consume unhealthy foods. The end goal of the food industry will always be to make more profit.”

“We’ve had these self-regulated codes long enough to know they are not working. It’s time for government to introduce higher standards to reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy marketing,” Ms Martin said.

McDonald’s claims to take its responsibility as an advertiser seriously, despite being a repeat offender, and has removed the ad.