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OpEd:

Ronald McDonald and Other Deceptive Villains

Education may be one of the only ways to protect your children against the manipulation of food advertising.

by LAWRIE PECK
America’s youth is obviously vulnerable to the increase in food advertisements, as evidenced by the fact that the increase of overweight children is twice the rate as adults.
Your living room is no longer a safe haven for your children when they turn on the television. Children are prime targets for marketing, not only because they will grow to be the next adult generation of consumers but also because they influence their parents to buy what they want. The food industry has capitalized on the spending power of American children by marketing mostly soft-drinks, sugary cereals, fast foods, salty snacks and candy to a young and impressionable audience. The promotion of unhealthy food has infiltrated TV screens across the nation, bombarding each child with 10,000 food advertisement on average each year.

These commercials may seem innocent to the adult viewer but what you may not know is that children cannot decipher advertisements from the regular programming of the TV channel. Ronald McDonald is interspersed with Tom and Jerry during Saturday morning cartoons, discreetly persuading your child to want McDonald’s food because of the “Happy Meals” and indoor play grounds.

The promotion of unhealthy food contributes greatly to the obesity epidemic that is growing in the U.S. and across the globe. Today about 17.1% of American children ages 2-19 are overweight, amounting to 12 million children. America’s youth is obviously vulnerable to the increase in food advertisements, as evidenced by the fact that the increase of overweight children is twice the rate as adults.

Food companies claim that their advertisements are meant to influence consumers' brand selection, not the type of food that they buy. But when the majority of food advertisements on kids TV networks are for unhealthy food, children are obviously going to prefer fast food and sugary cereals over fruits and vegetables.

Food companies target children and influence them to buy their product using promotional ties with other companies. Why do you think labels on cereal boxes claim “prize inside” and McDonald's displays the characters from the most recent Disney movie alongside the cheeseburger, fries and Coca-cola in the “Happy Meal”? These clever promotions, combining food and toys awaken your child’s hunger for both fun and tasty but unhealthy food.

If you still don’t believe that the marketing of food has effectively influenced children just ask any American child who Ronald McDonald is. A study found that 100% of American children know who this red, white and yellow clown is. McDonald's is so widespread that Ronald McDonald is the second most recognizable figure in the world, second only to Santa Clause. That may seem unbelievable, but with a $635 million advertising budget in 2001, McDonald's obviously has a great impact on the world’s diet.

How can parents protect their children when they are constantly barraged with advertisements promoting unhealthy food chains and diets? It seems impractical and even unfair to completely prevent your child from watching TV. Additionally there are many more venues than the television for food advertisements, such as billboards, taxi cabs, buses, and vending machines. Unless you live in a rural area, void of all modern technology, such as an Amish community, your children will always be susceptible to the manipulation of the food industry.

Parents should be the highest figure of authority in their child’s life. Setting a good example and teaching children from the get-go what is good to eat could significantly curb the rise of childhood obesity.
A practical solution to reverse the effects of the deceptive food advertisements that have infiltrated everyday life would be to educate your children about healthy eating at a young age. While fast food chains and cereal brands relate their food to fun and games, the effectiveness of these deceptive marketing strategies can be curtailed. Healthy foods can also be fun and tasty for children, if their food preferences are learned from their parents rather than the mass media. Parents should be the highest figure of authority in their child’s life, not Ronald McDonald or some other food-related icon. Setting a good example and teaching children from the get-go what is good to eat could significantly curb the rise of childhood obesity.

All parents want the best for their children, especially good health. With recent trends of increased diabetes and other obesity-related diseases in American youths, the current generation of children may be the first to not outlive their parents. However, this frightening possibility can be prevented. While governmental polices lag behind in addressing this national health concern, individual action is imperative. Until the government passes policies to combat the unhealthy food environment and obesity, education may be one of the only ways to protect your children against the manipulation of food advertising.

Becoming aware yourself of healthy living habits is the first step and the second is to pass your valuable knowledge down to your children. For parents who are interested in learning more ways to teach your children how to eat a balanced diet and live a long and healthy life, visit the website for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation: healthiergeneration.org.


Lawrie Peck, whose hometown is Baltimore, is a sophomore at Yale University. This article is an outgrowth of a course Peck has taken called "The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food," taught by Kelly Brownell. Professor Brownell is known for his activism to change the food environment and combat obesity. He challenged his students to write OpEds about one of the topics discussed.


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This story was published on December 4, 2006.