The advertising watchdog has upheld a complaint against fast food giant McDonald’s, after vouchers offering free fries were distributed at a children’s playground in regional Victoria.
The vouchers, which were handed out at SPC Ardmona KidsTown near Shepparton, offered a free small fries with any purchase at McDonald’s outlets in Shepparton, Echuca and Mooroopna, reports the ABC.
A complaint about the vouchers was lodged with the Advertising Standards Bureau by the Obesity Policy Coalition, which said McDonald’s was promoting unhealthy food choices to children.
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The ASB agreed, ruling that McDonald’s breached the Quick Service Restaurant Industry Initiative (QSRI) for Responsible Advertising and Marketing to Children as it “did not represent healthier dietary choice as determined by the Nutrition Criteria” of the QSRI.
However, the board conceded the advertisement “did not encourage excess consumption or otherwise undermine the importance of a healthy active lifestyle”.
“The promotion of a product which may have a particular nutritional composition is not, per se, undermining the importance of a healthy of active lifestyle,” said the board.
In its response to the ASB, McDonald’s said it instructed the playground to withdraw the voucher as soon as it became aware of the complaint.
“McDonald’s takes its responsibilities under the Quick Service Restaurant Industry Initiative for Responsible Advertising and Marketing to Children very seriously and were disappointed to learn of the complaint,” said McDonald’s.
“We believe this complaint to be an isolated incident concerning the nominated restaurants only. McDonald’s is a business with over 920 restaurants and whilst we have strict controls in place to ensure compliance with the QSRL, the voucher was unfortunately not passed through our standard internal review approval process.”
But while Obesity Policy Coalition executive manager Jane Martin told SmartCompany the coalition was satisfied with McDonald’s response, she says a large company like McDonald’s “should be doing better”.
“They should not have allowed this in the first place,” says Martin, who says self-regulation of the industry through the QSRI is not working. “We don’t think the rules are good enough.”
“And when companies can’t even stick to their own flimsy guidelines, it feels like it is just for PR.”
Martin says more than 150,000 people visit the KidsTown playground each year and the venue is popular with local families. What’s more, the vouchers indicate there are at least five McDonald’s restaurants nearby and so promoting the free fries to children is likely to direct these customers away from other local businesses, says Martin.
Martin says the public is becoming increasingly “concerned about these marketing tactics and campaigns” and there is a role for greater government regulation of food advertising directed at children.
“This is not an isolated incident, it happens all the time,” says Martin. “Poor diet is the leading cause of death and disease in Australia, followed by obesity and then smoking.”
“Rural areas have much higher rates of obesity and so these people are already vulnerable,” she says. “This doesn’t help.”
“We need more promotions of healthy food to shift the balance. But we’re pushing against companies that are very powerful and influential.”
SmartCompany contacted McDonald’s but did not receive a response prior to publication.