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In San Francisco, there are more marijuana shops than McDonald’s, bongs are considered medical devices, and apparently the local legislators believe that tiny Shrek action figures are a leading cause of heart attacks. In November, the city’s Board of Supervisors passed a law that effectively makes Happy Meals illegal. Any restaurant that wants to give away toys to its customers must now adhere to nutritional guidelines of hilariously oppressive exactitude. There are caps on calories and sodium, saturated fat ratios to maintain, vegetable quotas to meet. If asked to conform to such tyrannical dietary correctness, every chef at every foodie temple in the city would sooner flee to Bakersfield.


San Francisco’s Happy Meals ban is just one of many recent efforts to inoculate the public against the plague of McDonald’s marketing: Militant nutritionists advocate at least three servings of anti-corporate prohibition against the Golden Arches each year. In March 2010, an advocacy group called Corporate Accountability International launched a campaign to force company mascot Ronald McDonald into early retirement. In December 2010, a Sacramento mother of two filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s for using toys to promote Happy Meals. “I object to the fact that McDonald’s is getting into my kids’ heads without my permission and actually changing what my kids want to eat,” Monet Parham exclaimed in a press release.

What made Parham’s plight extra poignant is that she’s not just a mom — she’s also a regional program manager for Network for a Healthy California, a federally funded program whose mandate includes trying to change what kids want to eat through fliers, lesson plans, childrens’ cookbooks, and other promotional materials. So every time her kids choose Chicken McNuggets and free Barbie lip gloss over a half cup of steamed acorn squash, it’s not just a personal defeat for Parham but a professional one as well. No wonder she attributes such great power to the seductive pull of Strawberry Shortcake mini-dolls and iCarly notepads!

Scour the halls of Leo Burnett Worldwide, the agency that creates many of McDonald’s TV commercials, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes as strongly in the efficacy of advertising as the average foe of the Golden Arches. And it’s true — advertising and marketing can be pretty persuasive, especially when it employs the characters who populate beloved movies and TV shows.

In June 2010, for example, researches at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity published their findings on how licensed characters influence children’s taste and snack preferences. Essentially, they found that kids are more likely to say a food item whose packaging is branded with a popular cartoon character tastes better than an identical item presented in plain packaging. In addition, when asked which item they’d prefer to eat for a snack, the majority of the kids chose the branded one.

In the study, the researchers tested three food items: graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks, and baby carrots. As it turned out, associating cartoon characters with graham crackers and gummy fruit snacks had more impact than associating cartoon characters with baby carrots. That is, 35 of the 40 kids who participated in the study said they’d prefer the cartoon-endorsed graham crackers over the plain graham crackers, while only 29 of the 40 said they’d prefer the cartoon-endorsed baby carrots over the plain baby carrots.

While it seems logical that making a product more visually interesting and potentially meaningful through enhanced packaging increases its appeal, why should identical enhancements have more impact on the perceived desirability of some foods than others? Alas, the study’s authors seem more interested in touting their pre-existing prejudices against advertising than pursuing the question their experiment raised. “More than advocating the use of licensed characters for healthy foods, our findings point to the need to regulate and curtail the use of this marketing approach for high-energy, low-nutrient products.”

They don’t develop their argument any further than that, because, well, why should they? Everybody knows that advertising is inherently dishonest and corrupt, the junk food of public discourse, right? Of course Scooby Doo’s imprimatur will magically work better for high-fructose cookies than carrots. You don’t have to be a Ph.D. at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity to know that!

That this is the default mindset of so many food system reformers is ironic. They claim that through advertising and marketing, the purveyors of junk food have created an uneven playing field on which parents, public advocacy groups, and even abundantly funded government health programs cannot possibly compete against coercive cartoon characters pitching tiny golden nuggets of chicken scraps, cornstarch, and death. And then they say that the solution to this totalitarian fast food hell lies in silencing Ronald McDonald through the force of the government.

Long before the McDonald brothers ever applied assembly line techniques to the manufacture of hamburgers, the advertising industry was laboring on behalf of healthy food. In 1908, the advertising agency Lord & Tasker convinced the California Fruit Growers Exchange to market the oranges its multiple growers were producing under a common brand, and to establish that brand as a premium product through an aggressive advertising and marketing campaign. Thus was Sunkist introduced to the world. In 1928, a young adman named Leo Burnett created a character called the Green Giant to help sell peas for the Minnesota Canning Company.

Today, junk food marketers make significent investments in advertising and marketing their products. In 2009, McDonald’s spent $69.5 million advertising Happy Meals in the U.S. according to Kantar Media. But it’s not as if the producers and distributors of healthier fare have no money of their own to spend similarly. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has even created a special subsidy — the Market Access Program — that gives agriculture trade groups and small growers $200 million every year to promote their products. This year, the California Walnut Commission got $4.5 million, the Raisin Administrative Committee got $3.2 million, Sunkist Growers got $4 million, and the Florida Department of Citrus received $5.2 million. Surely, that ought to be enough enlist the spokesperson services of at least one or two Nickelodeon B-listers.

Like their human counterparts, cartoon celebrities are actually pretty eager to burnish their reputations by endorsing virtuous causes. Over the last five years in fact, there’s been a quiet proliferation of such partnerships. Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and dozens of other Disney characters promote the hundreds of fresh fruit and vegetable offerings that are marketed under the Disney Garden brand. SpongeBob SquarePants appears on packaging for spinach, Tweety Bird has shilled for grapes, Bugs Bunny is pitching carrots, and Elmo’s hawking organic vegetable soup and visiting White House chef Sam Kass to discuss a new federal law that apparently requires school lunches to be healthy, brightly colored, and adorable.

And apparently what works for junk food can also work for carrots and celery sticks masquerading as Tinker Toys and even plain old bananas. Crunch Pak — which produces sliced apple products for Disney Garden, Burger King, and various other brands — is selling 1.5 million units per week and commands a 40 percent market share in the $120 million-a-year sliced apples category.

The Disney Consumer Group reports that it has sold more than 400 million servings of fresh produce since launching the Disney Garden product line in 2006.

Those may not be McDonald’s numbers, but it took McDonald’s more than a few years to build its empire, too. Indeed, while food industry crusaders characterize McDonald’s as a corporate con artist, using advertising and other suspect techniques to dupe credulous, weak-willed, or otherwise vulnerable consumers into eating food they don’t really want to eat, the truth is that it and the rest of the junk food industry works very hard for its money. It saw the virtue of aggressive marketing and capitalized on that. It saw the virtue of making food convenient and capitalized on that. It saw the virtue of keeping food inexpensive and capitalized on that. Now, its critics lobby for a Happy Meal of regulation and subsidies to neutralize its power. But there’s a fairer, albeit harder, way to fix America’s food woes. It starts with understanding that no amount of heavy-handed nutritional engineering can quell a six-year-old’s appetite for Mickey Mouse. • 7 January 2011