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McDonald's, Marketing, and a Mom's Dilemma
McDonald's recently launched a new marketing campaign aimed at little kids. The company put Ronald McDonald to work in TV ads that encourage kids to visit HappyMeal.com. And not long after McDonald's went live with the campaign, an advocacy group wrote an open letter asking the company to retire Ronald and put an end to the company's marketing to kids.
With all the attention focused on the issue, we knew that parents would want more information on HappyMeal.com -- as well as McWorld, a McDonald's-themed virtual world -- so I assigned these sites to be reviewed.
Full disclosure: I'm a vegetarian. My kids are vegetarians. I even got them Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson's Chew on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food (essentially, Fast Food Nation for kids).
And one more thing: My kids sometimes eat at McDonald's. They're sucked in by the toys, and they love the fries. They've never actually eaten the meat (they order cheese sandwiches), but still, they get Happy Meals, toys and all.
So how does a vegetarian editor who wants to provide a fair assessment of McDonald's kids' sites reconcile that with the facts that a) even though my kids eat there, I have problems with the impact that fast food has on kids' health and b) as a parent, I find this kind of marketing to kids frustrating, difficult to combat, and a little bit sneaky?
By shifting the focus from my experience to what parents need to know. We evaluated the websites for what they are: a big corporation's marketing tools that -- at least in the case of McWorld -- are actually pretty well done. You'll notice that reviewer Erin Brereton thought McWorld was a "visually impressive," "pretty safe," and even educational virtual world, hence the 4-star rating.
But we believe that parents should know exactly what these sites are about, so neither McWorld.com nor HappyMeal.com is "On" for younger kids. They're both a "Pause" to alert parents that they'll want to dig a little deeper into the sites and decide, based on knowing their children and their family's stance on fast food and marketing to kids, whether it's OK for their family. (Get extra help in guiding your children through the world of online advertising and selling to kids with more useful tips.)
As for me, I recognize that living in today's world means balancing seemingly contradictory ideas. I'm sure I'll still treat my kids occasionally to McDonald's, while I continue to teach them to recognize marketing come-ons and make smart decisions about nutrition. And because every family is different, at Common Sense Media we strive to get you the information you need to make the best decision for your family.