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McTeacher Nights? Uncovering the Horrible Ways Food Corporations Infiltrate Kids' Lives

A new MythBusters video pulls back the curtain on junk-food marketing aimed at young people, explains its harmful impact, and shows what we can do about it.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Corporate Accountability International

 
 
 
 

Did you know that Nabisco touts a preschool-age “Oreo Cookie Counting Book” and Hershey’s publishes a “Hershey’s Kisses Multiplication Book”? Did you know that these books are just one of the countless tactics Big Food uses to market to our kids throughout their lives — even in school?

For more than a decade, I’ve been investigating, tracking and analyzing how the food industry spins the story of food. But when I became a mom, now with two young girls, I became increasingly interested in how the food industry targets children and teens with marketing that runs the gamut from explicit kid-oriented advertising to the duplicitous infiltration of the classroom under the guise of education.

The more I learned, the more I was shocked by the prevalence of this marketing. Nearly $2 billion is spent by the food and beverage industries every year on advertising trained specifically on children and teens. (And many billions more are spent on marketing not specifically targeted at young people, but reaching them nonetheless. Take Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of American Idol: I have a feeling grown-ups aren’t the only ones tuning into see Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. hash it out).

That’s why I teamed up with  Corporate Accountability International and a broad coalition of  Food MythBusters to produce the latest movie in our mythbusting series. This time, we’re taking on the myth of parental choice in the face of Big Food’s pervasive marketing. Our movie pulls back the curtain on junk-food marketing aimed at young people, explains its harmful impact, and shows what we can do about it.

A tidal wave of junk-food marketing

Now, when some people hear me talk about marketing to kids, they shrug their shoulders and say: If you don’t like it, then turn off the TV! If only it were that easy.

You could unplug your set, lock it in your closet, hey, even toss it out your window —  and your kids might be no less protected from unwanted marketing. Today, the food industry reaches our children far beyond commercials during Saturday morning cartoons.

Big Food marketing pops up in the classroom and lunchroom; on sports leagues jersey’s and playground equipment; on dedicated websites and social media platforms. So today, even the most diligent parent can’t guarantee their kids aren’t touched by it at the most impressionable stages in their development.

Every food and beverage company does it, but McDonald’s leads the pack. The corporation spends nearly $1 billion in advertising in the U.S. alone every year. And the corporation’s reach extends beyond traditional advertising. For example, it has developed a number of ways to reach kids in schools. Its “McTeacher’s nights,” for instance, invite local schools to use fast-food joints to fundraise. Teachers and administrators are invited to flip burgers for a night in exchange for a percentage of that evening’s profits, which sometimes don’t add up to much more than a couple of hundred dollars. Talk about building brand “goodwill.” What could be better than aligning a transnational corporate brand with trusted teachers? Great for McDonald’s — not so great for the schools.

One of the corporation’s most insidious way to promote its brand to kids is its flagship website for children: HappyMeal.com.  The website targets kids with every pixel. The site is geared to look like a place for fun and educational interaction. Games and activities highlight familiar characters like Power Rangers and loveable cartoon characters. Downloadable, branded PDFs encourage kids to continue engaging with the site and brand offline.

Standing up to Big Food

As a mom, I shouldn’t have my already tough job made harder by a billion-dollar industry aimed at undermining the health of my kids. If, as the food industry likes to say, it’s a parent’s responsibility to make the right choices for our kids, then Big Food should be advertising to us, not our children.

With the launch of our newest movie, the Food MythBusters and Corporate Accountability International, along with  dozens of organizations around the country, are raising awareness about the harmful impact of this rampant marketing and sharing the stories of what people are doing about it.

You can be part of this growing movement.  Please watch our movie here and share it with friends.

 
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