In a recent episode of the CBS series The Good Wife, the fictional Lockhart Gardner law firm represents a woman who owns an adultery website.
At one point, attorney Alicia Florrick has a debate with her client about whether the site can be held responsible for a user’s murder. “Do you blame the beer for [a] DUI?” the website owner asks. “No, but I might blame the bartender,” Alicia answers.
In the fight to curb childhood obesity, a group of health organizations are raising similar questions. Led by the nonprofit watchdog group Corporate Accountability International, more than 550 individuals and groups signed an open letter asking McDonald’s to stop marketing junk food to kids. The letter, which ran Wednesday in newspapers across the country, called on the fast food giant to abandon toy giveaways with Happy Meals and to retire Ronald McDonald, described as an icon “as recognizable as Santa Claus.”
The group also submitted a shareholder’s resolution asking the chain to produce a report on its “health footprint,” or how McDonald’s offerings and marketing efforts impact public health issues, including obesity. Investors rejected the proposal and today McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner said Ronald McDonald — who Skinner described as “an ambassador for good” — is here to stay.
“He does not advertise unhealthy food to children,” Skinner said.”We provide many choices that fit with the balanced, active lifestyle. It is up to them to choose and their parents to choose, and it is their responsibility to do so.”
Is Ronald McDonald getting a bum rap? And would jettisoning the character or Happy Meal toys — already the focus of a San Francisco ordinance establishing nutritional standards for kids’ meals that come with giveaways — really turn the tide against obesity?
“Ronald McDonald is part of the heritage of the McDonald’s brand and continues … to play a role in the company’s advertising for children,” Wharton marketing professor Patti Williams notes. “That said, I am not sure he is central to the McDonald’s brand for most children today, or most McDonald’s customers more generally.”
Williams suggests that Ronald could be phased out with limited negative repercussions for the chain. Happy Meals, however, are another matter. “I suspect that often the happiest part of the Happy Meal is, in fact, the toy,” she says. “The loss of the toy, and the advertising opportunities that a constantly shifting slate of toys offers, is likely to be much more damaging.”
In light of the McDonald’s letter and the recent release by the Federal Trade Commission of voluntary standards for marketing food to children, how to entice young people to try a particular product is likely to become a greater concern for many companies.
On the heels of a 2005 decision by Kraft to stop advertising Oreos and other snack foods during television shows aimed at young children, Knowledge at Wharton asked experts how companies should respond to worries about contributing to the spread of obesity. According to Wharton marketing professor Barbara Kahn, “marketers typically go after customer value,” which includes offering products that customers are willing to pay for. “Marketers are not making people eat unhealthy foods. They are just delivering what the customer wants…. I would be a better McDonald’s customer if I felt satisfied with the food and didn’t gain weight. So they would keep me as a loyal customer [if they continued offering healthier choices]. But there are people out there who don’t care if they gain weight, and some marketers will appeal to that segment. Marketing responds to the free market.”
But Margot Wootan of Center for Science in the Public Interest argued that companies try to create demand for their products, often at the expense of more nutritional options. “When a child begs his or her parents to go to McDonald’s for dinner, that choice is competing not only with Wendy’s or Burger King, but with a meal cooked at home,” said Wootan, who helped draft the new federal standards. “Marketing works. That’s why the industry does it and why health advocates are concerned about it.”