‘Happy Meal’ ad gives some food for thought

By WENDY KNOWLER Time of article published Jul 16, 2014

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There was a time when the manufacturers of energy dense, nutrient-poor foods – commonly referred to as “junk food”- could happily punt them to children using cartoon characters, celebrities, gifts and the like.

Remember Francois Pienaar and the Lay’s chips?

But as child obesity rates have soared around the globe, regulatory bodies have clamped down on the ways in which marketers can make unhealthy foods seem appealing to children.

In this country, a draft amendment to the regulations relating to the labelling and marketing of foodstuffs – currently out for comment – seeks to severely curtail the way foods rich in sugar, fats and salts are marketed to schoolchildren, going as far as to say that marketers shall not “abuse positive family values such as portraying any happy, caring family scenario” in order to advertise unhealthy foods.

The “happy family tucking into breakfast” Nutella television advert comes to mind; the chocolate spread’s main ingredients being sugar (a whopping 16.5g per 30ml serving) and palm oil.

The draft amendment specifies 5g of sugar per 100g as being “undesirable nutrient”.

In the absence of a regulation curtailing such practices, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) developed its own code some years ago, requiring the industry to self-regulate.

It was that code which Stellenbosch law lecturer Lize Mills, who has a special interest in the protection of children, relied on when lodging a complaint with the ASA about McDonald’s Happy Meal advert which was flighted on DStv in May.

It featured a young boy and girl playing on a skyscraper, and taking things from each other with a spiderweb.

A voice-over stated: “Want to be amazing like Spider-Man? You can get a taste of the action by sticking to awesome stuff like juice and Chicken McNuggets at McDonald’s. Be part of the web-swinging fun, now in your Happy Meal.”

Mills said the advert contravened the ASA’s code in that it implied that children could get superpowers by eating something which couldn’t be considered to be a very healthy meal.

She pointed out that she’d lodged a complaint about a similar McDonald’s advert last January. At the time, the company undertook to withdraw the advert – which had run its course by the time of the authority’s hearing – and Mills urged the ASA Directorate not to accept the same response as McDonald’s could simply keep contravening the code and making the same undertaking later.

But that’s pretty much what happened this time, too.

Auram Restaurant Company, trading as McDonald’s SA, said the advert was withdrawn from circulation on May 24 and would not be flighted again. It added that the advert encouraged children to drink juice, which was not a poor nutritional choice.

In considering the case this week, the directorate ruled there was no evidence to suggest that McDonald’s was a repeat offender, and the resolution was considered adequate.

* On May 29, the Department of Health published draft amendments to the Food labelling Regulations (R429). The period for comments ends on August 29.

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