Monday, September 30, 2013

McDonald's offers to make some alterations to beverages in children's Happy Meals by 2020

McDonald's this month announced at a White House event that it would make some changes to beverages marketed to children in Happy Meals.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a project of the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association, praised the announcement warmly.  President Bill Clinton encouraged other companies to emulate McDonald's:
If we want to curb the catastrophic economic and health implications of obesity across the world, we need more companies to follow McDonald’s lead and to step up to the plate and make meaningful changes. I applaud them for doing it.
McDonald's appeared to say that sodas would be removed from Happy Meals.  A McDonald's ad (.pdf), and the press release from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, both used the same language, saying that Happy Meals would:
Promote and market only water, milk, and juice as the beverage in Happy Meals on menu boards and in-store and external advertising.
That would be a big change if it were true.  But it appears not to be true.

As Marion Nestle and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) later reported, McDonald's agreement with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation reads quite differently from the advertising copy and the Alliance's press release.  Instead of saying McDonald's would only "promote and market" healthy beverages on menu boards and in advertising, the agreement (.pdf) actually says McDonald's would only "feature" the comparatively healthy beverages.

The agreement explicitly adds that McDonald's may continue to put soft drinks on the Happy Meals section of menu boards.  In plain English, this contradicts the company's summary statement.  Moreover, a confusing sentence in the agreement appears to say that Fruitizz and Robinson's Fruit Shoot count as compliant with the "CGI commitment," which may indicate that sweetened fruit soft drinks will be treated as juice.  Finally, the commitment has a timeline that was not mentioned in the company's ad: it will apply to up to 50% of key markets within 3 years, and 100% of key markets by 2020 (and these key markets themselves represent 85% of all sales).

What lesson can we draw from this?
  • If you think the marketing environment children face today is fine, and you don't believe any major change is needed, the small voluntary changes offered by McDonald's are satisfactory.
  • If you want to see a substantial change in children's marketing environment, it is reasonable to think that these voluntary self-regulation initiatives are far too mild to make any difference, and that the government should take stronger action to protect our children.
  • If you want to see a substantial change in children's marketing environment, but you are skeptical of government initiative to improve things, you should turn to one of the best private-sector tools for defending the consumer's interests -- you should speak up for yourself in every public forum you can.  Many sensible parents who prioritize their children's nutrition have simply concluded that nothing but grief comes from patronizing these quick service restaurant companies and their special meals targeting children.  Tell your friends and family what you are doing as a responsible parent in your own community.    

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