Archive for Thursday, May 10, 2001

Wake Up Call: McCapturing tykes

Fast-food giant king of marketing techniques

May 10, 2001


In today's competitive global marketplace, shrewd business strategies equal market share. And what better way to learn these effective sales methods than by following the master of marketing: the McDonald's Corporation. The cornerstones of their savvy planning are children. Not only are children good consumers, but brand loyalties formed at a young age last into adulthood. As Kids 'R' Us president Mike Searles puts it "If you own this child at an early age ... you can own this child for years to come."

Studies show that children under 5 years old cannot discriminate between programs and advertisements, and kids below 9 do not recognize the persuasive intent of ads nor are they able to evaluate their claims. The McDonald's Corporation was a pioneer in exploiting vulnerable youth. Ronald, the happy and colorful clown, is one of the most recognized figures in the world. Children's birthday parties and playgrounds are hallmarks of their restaurants.

When it comes to baiting youth, McDonald's knows that kids and toys are like Keith Richards and narcotics. A giant display case of Tiger Toys greets children as they enter their local store. The sign even indicates that "toys for toddlers" are available. Remember the younger the mind, the better the future return.

McDonald's uses television ads designed to make kids nag their parents, a tactic the experts call the "nudge factor." The average kid spends 21 hours a week watching television, equivalent to a solid month and half of every year. Cable channels devoted to youth marketing now flourish, including Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel and the Cartoon Network. That's some serious nudge factor.

The success of Operation McKids is undeniable 90 percent of U.S. kids ages 3 to 9 eat at McDonald's once a month. The information superhighway also holds great promise for product placement in the young, developing mind. McDonald's led the way in online market research on children, asking for such things as a child's favorite menu item, sports team and name. This was before Big Government stepped in and passed the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. Damned Washington bureaucrats always trying to spoil it for the free market. However, the online opportunities for selling products to kids are still enormous.

Internet's land for fun!

In an ingenious move to masquerade its advertising mission as a site for "fun games and educational activities" for kids, the Web page for Ronald's Playplace announces "I have a favorite letter. It's 'M' for McDonald's!" A small child can "Learn about dinosaurs with Grimace" or "Practice the alphabet with Birdie." It's like Sesame Street with Big Macs.

But you can't just keep it books and learning if you want to shape a youth's mind you need cartoons. Joe Camel is testament to this fact. In 1991, a study showed that nearly all 6-year-olds recognized the adorably hip Joe.

A link to "McDonaldland" follows Joe's lead, featuring interactive cartoons of "Ronald and friends." A child can click her way through the Fry Kid Forest with Grimace. (Note to ad execs: When choosing character names, avoid ones that mean "a facial expression of disgust or disapproval.") A few more clicks and she will find the "McMerchandise" section pushing McDonaldland handpuppets, watches and backpacks. A few McNudges to the parents and she is paying "Ronald and friends" to advertise their products. Now I know why Ronald is always smiling.


McD's still doesn't have homeroom teachers using these educational aids, but the McClassroom may not be far off. Children spend roughly seven hours a day in school for 150 days a year about 1,050 hours of lost advertising potential. Eyeing this market share, McDonald's and cohorts like Pizza Hut have entered hundreds of school lunchrooms, including many in Kansas. In Fort Collins, Colo., McDonald's has managed to break into the elementary school market.

Talk about McGold mine.

Kansas also is ripe for some further McChild Development. As the state legislature cuts funding to schools, McDonald's is always ready to make up those budget shortfalls. In school districts across Colorado, hallways and buses are now lined with advertising from fast-food companies.

Unhappy meals

Any smart advertiser knows you have to watch out for those skeletons in the company closet. In the case of McDonald's, the company doesn't like to mention Ronald's other friends: McDiabetes, McCoronary and McCancer. According to the American Dietetic Assn. (ADA), one fifth of all Americans are obese and "it is well established" that obesity and unhealthy diets are linked with the chronic diseases just mentioned. Perhaps Grimace should start sweatin' to oldies.

For kids under 19, one fourth are overweight or obese. The Big Mac, Super Size fries and Coke with 1,590 calories and 61 grams of fat might be implicated in this mess.

The director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), William Dietz, called obesity "an epidemic in the U.S. the likes which we have not had before in chronic disease." The CDC is projecting that hundreds of billions of dollars will be needed for the McHealthcare Costs.

The ADA argues that public nutrition campaigns would save taxpayers billions on healthcare. These health wackos could really threaten McSales. In the late 1970s, the FTC, with wide support from health, parent, and consumer groups, planned to ban all television ads directed at kids 7 and under. In 1981, the plan was dropped. Thank God for Ronald! Reagan, that is.

However, the other Ronald and his board of directors still must worry about being slapped with a McLawsuit for peddling unhealthy lifestyles to kids: McCardiovascular Disease kills more than 950,000 Americans a year. Big Tobacco, another homicidal industry which expertly markets deadly lifestyles to kids, agreed to pay states more than $240 billion over 25 years and is facing a federal lawsuit as well.

OK, so there are some ethical issues here that could put the Hamburglar in the slammer with Joe Camel. But do you think Ray Kroc made an empire selling fat by concerning himself with ethics? Check your McShares kids are good business.

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