McDonald's forced to change marketing after one complaint

By By Alexandra Roach | 3 July 2012
McDonald's Australia's Happy Meal website.

The ad watchdog has ruled McDonald's must make changes to its Happy Meal website following only one complaint that the site breached codes relating to advertising to children.

The detailed complaint submitted to the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB), running one and a half pages in length, stated the site markets junk food to children when only healthy eating and exercise options should be advertised.

“Physical activity as well as healthy dietary choices are to be promoted [according to the Code],” wrote the complainant. “We note that as well as advertising unhealthy foods the website does not promote physical activity of any kind.”

The complainant also argued the Happy Meal website should be classified as a marketing tool that must comply with advertising standards as it features the famous golden arches logo and images of McDonald's characters.

“Clearly a strong association between the website and Happy Meals as a McDonald’s product is being created by the content of the website,” wrote the complainant. “Given this additional website content the board should consider the website to be marketing to children and hence the ... [codes] now apply.”

The complainant also protested the site's use of the famous characters that appear as Happy Meal toys as well as the restaurant chain's own stable of famous characters.

“Popular personalities or licensed characters must not be used in marketing communications to children which promote food or beverage products,” the complainant wrote. “The website ... promotes My Little Pony and Transformers ...  toys as they are available with Happy Meals. The website also includes reference to ... Zoobles and Pokemon ... [which] are popular children’s animated characters and their use is a breach of [advertising codes].”

McDonald's Australia Ltd rejected the complaint, arguing the site was not in breach of any advertising codes and was not a marketing tool in the first place.

“The website is not correctly characterised as 'advertising and marketing communications' but is in fact a product itself,” McDonald's wrote. “The website is not for the promotion of food or beverages, but is an extension of the Happy Meal product and brand. Accordingly, the codes do not apply.”

The fast food giant also objected to the charge the site did not promote a healthy lifestyle for children, pointing to a tennis tutorial video on the site which “strongly encourage[s] active play.”

McDonald's also objected to the complaint about its use of famous characters, arguing that as the site was not a marketing tool, the code which disallows the use of said characters rendered the complaint irrelevant.

The ASB ruled the website was, in fact, a marketing tool and was subject to advertising codes.  “The website is intended either directly or indirectly to promote Happy Meals,” the ASB wrote, ruling McDonald's had to alter the site to advertise the healthy food choices available as part of Happy Meals, rather than offering children visiting the site images of cheesburgers and french fries.

McDonald's agreed to alter the site to comply with the ASB's ruling.

“While McDonald's view remains that the ... [codes] do not apply to the Happy Meal website in its current form, McDonald's supports the intent behind the voluntary advertising codes and is keen to work co-operatively with the ASB in this matter,” the company wrote in response to the ruling. “We trust that the above modification to the Happy Meal website is the only action which the ASB requires McDonald's to take in respect of this matter.”

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