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MCDONALD'S ADS TARGET CHILDREN AS YOUNG AS 4

Government Food Marketing Hearing Told of Elementary School Programs

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- In testimony at yesterday's one-day food marketing hearing at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science, a McDonald's Corp. executive said the company takes Ronald McDonald to elementary schools and is talking to children as young as 4 in its advertising.
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Malena Peleo-Lazar, McDonald's chief creative officer and vice president, portrayed Ronald McDonald's school visits as an effort to teach children about healthy choices.

The hearing is the latest round of battles between government regulators and food marketing giants sparked by the childhood obesity crisis.

4-year-olds
The young age of the marketing targets was detailed in response to a question from a panel member as officials of Kraft Foods, General Mills and PepsiCo all said their companies don't run ads in media unless the majority of the audience is at least 6 years old. Ms. Peleo-Lazar said some of McDonald's Happy Meals advertising is aimed at 4- to 7-year-olds, with the main target being 6. McDonald's, however, highlighted its planned use of Ronald in Ms. Peleo-Lazar's own testimony.

As the Institute held its hearing, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, urged new Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt to immediately convene a national conference to recommend standards for advertising and marketing to children.

Mr. Harkin said a conference "will provide a forum ... to develop necessary standards for use in food advertising and marketing practices to be put in place to protect children and promote child health."

An aide to Mr. Harkin said the senator questions the use of Ronald McDonald. "No matter what Ronald is doing, they are still using this cartoon character to sell fatty hamburgers to kids. Once upon a time, tobacco companies had Joe Camel and they didn't get it. either."

New lobbying alliance
In preparation for a confrontation with Congress over regulations that may limit food advertising aimed at children, food-marketing conglomerates and their advertising agencies have recently formed a new political lobbying organization called the Alliance for American Advertising.

Last year the American Psychological Association recommended banning ads in TV shows when more than half the audience was younger than 8 years old. That association's study was headed by Dale Kunkel, a University of Arizona professor, who is a member of the Institute's study panel and asked one of the questions regarding what age children are being targeted. Mr. Kunkel declined comment later on his reaction to McDonald's response.

Elementary-school entertainment
Ms. Peleo-Lazar said later that Ronald McDonald is appearing in elementary schools as part of a new half-hour field show, "Ronald Live and in Person." She said the show is approved by the Academy of Pediatrics.

McDonald's branded entertainment campaigns aimed at children feature 'Sesame Sreet'-like characters interacting with french fries and other food products. Click to see larger image.

A McDonald's spokesman said Ronald, the company's high-profile advertising icon, had never been used to promote individual McDonald's products.

Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group that has been highly critical of marketers' child-oriented advertising, said she was astonished at McDonald's comments and that the company would want to promote its use of such a key brand icon in schools.

'Hurt them more than helped'
"I thought it hurt them more than helped them," she said. "It's what I [CSPI] would have wanted to present" to link junk food and obesity.

A McDonald's spokesman said the company's "communications to customers including children and moms are responsible and responsive. They are appropriate. They communicate choice and variety. They are age-appropriate, size-appropriate and are [about] a quality meal at a great value," he said.

The Institute's congressionally mandated study is due out in September, and at yesterday's hearing all four marketers said they were taking major steps to boost marketing for healthier products.

Wellness as a growth trend
"We think wellness will be one of the growth trends over the next several decades on a par with convenience of the past decades," said Ellen Taaffe, a PepsiCo vice president. "If we can develop better tasting, convenient and healthier fare, we have hit gold."

She said the growth rate for what PepsiCo calls "better for you and good for you" categories is twice the rate of growth of other products, and that 50% of the company's new products would be in that category. PepsiCo includes Diet Pepsi in the better-for-you category.

Lance Friedmann, a Kraft Foods senior vice president, said, "What is good for public health is good for our business" and he reiterated Kraft's moves to cut fat and promote healthier products.

Targets mothers, not children
Ken Powell, executive vice president of General Foods, said his company markets to mothers, not children.

"We strongly think products advertised to kids can be advertised appropriately," he said. He noted bans on advertising to children abroad and obesity rates that vary widely from region to region in this country, and said that data argues against a link between advertising and obesity.

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