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Would you like a side of advertising with your Happy Meal?

As public health organisations and the food and advertising industries continue to debate the regulation of marketing unhealthy foods to children, I’ve learnt that health organisations must take the wins…

McDonald’s has been slapped on the wrist for marketing its Happy Meal to children online. Skynet

As public health organisations and the food and advertising industries continue to debate the regulation of marketing unhealthy foods to children, I’ve learnt that health organisations must take the wins when we get them.

In the latest face-off, McDonald’s has been issued with a slap on the wrist, with the Advertising Standards Board upholding a complaint that McDonald’s targeted children with its Happy Meals website.

An initial complaint, filed over a year ago by the Obesity Policy Coalition, was dismissed: the Advertising Standards Board didn’t think the McDonald’s Happy Meal website - which promoted free toys with kids' meals, spruiked birthday parties at its restaurants, featured fun games and cartoon characters including McDonald’s own licensed characters - constituted as marketing to kids!

The most pressing question that needs to be addressed is how McDonald’s can stand by the claim it doesn’t promote Happy Meals to children when it has an entire website – with a URL - dedicated to online games and featuring McDonald’s-licensed characters. It’s certainly not the type of website that would appeal to adults.

So what has changed the opinion of the Advertising Standards Board this time? Maybe it was the 510 signatures that Cancer Council NSW, received in response to a petition asking anyone who felt strongly about this issue to sign. We included the 510 signatures in a letter to the Advertising Standards Board but it would not reconsider the original complaint as the website had not changed.

McDonald’s claims it doesn’t promote Happy Meals to children. Flickr/2dogs

In making the 2011 ruling, the Board stated that microsites directed to children should avoid any reference to particular products and minimise organisational promotion.

We submitted a new complaint in May because we felt McDonald’s had ignored this caution and, by filling the website with cartoon characters, had breached the Code. This time the complaint was upheld.

Did the pressure of the community make the board change its opinion this time?

The Advertising Standards Board says it considers “prevailing community standards”, so we can only assume it was the support of 510 community members that convinced the Advertising Standards Board to change its mind, as the successful complaint and earlier complaint both argued that the website was being used to target children.

New strategies

As marketers and advertisers continue to feel pressure from public health organisations and concerned parents who are urging better regulation of junk food advertising on television, the focus is changing and tactics are moving online.

Let’s face it, you would have to be living under a rock to not know that online and social media is the space where Generation Z thrives. Young people don’t just rely on television for entertainment; they are instant messaging, playing music on MP3 players, using their parents' tablets to download apps, and recording videos on their smart phones. And where Gen Z goes, brands and advertisers will follow.

But with our wins, there are setbacks. We recently submitted complaints about four other websites, Donut King, the Muffin Break’s Muffin Man website, Aeroplane Jelly and Yogo Alley and each complaint was dismissed, despite featuring techniques such as online games, find-a-word puzzles and colouring-in sheets.

Leonard John Matthews

The Advertising Standards Board response states it doesn’t deny these sites are aimed at children, however because of the wording and loopholes in the self-regulatory codes and initiatives, companies can continue to engage and promote their brands to children.

So in taking on these big food companies and advertisers and filing complaints, Cancer Council NSW knows that we will receive the negative shouts of “nanny state” and “get back to curing cancer” but cancer is the reason we are in this space.

There is convincing evidence that being overweight is a risk factor for cancers of the bowel, kidney, pancreas, oesophagus, endometrium (lining of the uterus) and post-menopausal breast cancer. And with three in five adults and a quarter of children either overweight or obese in Australia , we need to do more to create an environment that supports healthier food choices and doesn’t encourage the wrong types of foods.

It’s clear the government needs to step up and introduce stronger regulations across traditional and online media so there are no loopholes in the wording that can be manipulated by the food industry to target children.

Much needs to be done to reverse Australia’s rising obesity rates but it’s critical that we as a society play our part in protecting today’s children from the unhealthy influence of junk food advertising so they don’t become tomorrow’s health statistics.

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7 Comments sorted by

  1. Bruce Moon



    Full marks for trying. As you have demonstrated, the 'umpire' (again) fails the public interest test.

    In public policy literature, there is the phenomena of 'regulatory capture'. Yours is clearly an example.

    But, sadly, while there are so very many examples in Australia of 'regulatory capture', the real issue is that tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum pay lip service to the matter.

    For those wanting more on 'regulatory capture' goto:

    Read more
    1. Margo Saunders

      Public Health Policy Researcher

      In reply to Bruce Moon

      Regulatory capture occurs when a government regulatory agency advances the interests of the industry or sector which it is regulating. This situation here is not regulatory capture, but self-regulation through the industry’s own Advertising Standards Bureau. I am only speculating, but perhaps changes in personnel may have something to do with the recent decision: a number of the Bureau’s Board members were appointed in August 2011, 4 months after the decision on the original complaint to which Kathy…

      Read more
    2. Bruce Moon


      In reply to Margo Saunders


      You advance a quite dated and very narrow view of regulatory capture.

      I suggest self regulation is part of the regulatory capture phenomena.

      To comprehend the wider scope, you may like to consider the various attributes of decision-making, especially the notion of 'non decision still being a decision'. Whether government regulates with written policy, or gets the industry to write a regulation (as in Australian Standards), or, as here, decides to allow self regulation, the fact is that it is still regulating.

      In the case of self-regulation, the industry is given a free kick to capture the governmental policy directions.


    3. Margo Saunders

      Public Health Policy Researcher

      In reply to Bruce Moon

      The issues concerning self-regulation and regulatory capture have always been considered as quite distinct. And I actually did some checking on this before posting my comment.

  2. Marlon Perera


    Kathy, while I agree with what you're doing and the misleading nature of advertising to kids... shouldn't part of the blame be on the parents, for allowing their kids to eat too many Happy Meals (I know my parents were very strict about how often I ate it, regardless of how many times I begged)..

  3. Mariana Podesta-Diverio

    Undergraduate Arts Student at University of Sydney

    I really enjoyed this article. The author cohesively illustrates the links between junk food advertising and what policy needs to (and is failing to) achieve.

    It seems that, regardless of all we hear about childhood obesity and resulting maladies, media and pop science discourse chronically fails to hold the adult-life repercussions of obesity at the forefront of obesity debates. The link between junk food advertising and debilitating health problems is alarmingly absent from the majority of mainstream obesity debates.

    The 'blaming the parents' approach is simply inadequate.