Value the Meal

I recently got involved with a group called corporate accountability international and their current campaign to try and limit fast food advertising to kids (the title of the campaign is “value the meal”). The idea is that Ronald Mcdonald influences kids and gets them to buy more hamburgers, making them fat and causing other health problems to boot. (for you SM readers, this is a campaign John Stewart is working closely with, so check it out).

When I was approached about helping, I couldn’t help philosophize a little bit about this campaign and its tactics, and one thing that struck me is what I’ll call the inverse relation between change and justice.

This campaign makes a lot of sense I think. It doesn’t strive for a fat tax, new laws, or a new federal agency to monitor food companies. In fact, it’s not even trying to shut fast food companies down or even hurt their profits (though it might do that as a side effect, and it may intentionally strive to hurt the fast food industry in the future, I don’t know). Rather, its goal (right now) is very simple; it simply wants companies to advertise less to kids because kids, as we all know, can’t make informed choices to the degree others can, and so are at risk of being induced to eat more unhealthy food than they otherwise would, making them sick.

Notice how this limited goal nicely sidesteps complaints about “parental responsibility.” Some people say that fast food companies should be given free rein to sell whatever they want to whoever they want and that parents have an obligation to make sure their kids are healthy. I doubt this position is supportable, but EVEN IF IT IS, this campaign does not call it into question since it does not ask for any fines or legislation to be aimed at fast food restaurants. In other words, pretend that 100 parents who live near a mcdonalds decide to be very active in making sure their kids eat health. They serve only healthy food around the house, but face a question about what to do when their kids are out in the neighborhood. They can EITHER install shock collars on their kids at all times that prevent them from walking into the mcdonalds more than a certain number of times in the week OR try and organize so that less commercials reach their children, thus lowering their appetite for mcdonalds. Pretend that they do decide its easier just to protest until mcdonalds stops marketing to kids, then they have SUCCEEDED in their parental obligation. People who are working for this campaign are thus not trivializing or bypassing parental obligation, but working to meet this obligation.

However, let me return to my theme: that there is an inverse relationship between change and justice. There is almost no question that this is a worthwhile campaign, but at the same, the likely impact might be modest. If mcdonalds stops advertising to kids, will it advertise more to adults, who then may take their kids to mcdonalds more? Also, what are the reasons for kids getting too fat? Is it the MARKETING of fast food companies, or is it complicated sociological and economic factors like the fact that fast food is fast and cheap and that the U.S. has no established eating or cooking culture unlike nearly every other part of the world? This question about the amount of change the campaign will do is especially pressing to me since I don’t think there is much evidence that advertising can change the demand curve for people. In other words, I think commercials usually reveal information rather than making someone desire something more.

So, to conclude, the point is this. When you do something that is almost certainly acceptable and probably morally good, then its likely that you aren’t changing things that much. Big changes, almost always, are much more controversial. For example, pretend you were advocating a calorie tax instead of just ending fast food marketing. The amount of change you could get with a step would probably be enormous, but its much more objectionable. For example, it might make people less able to afford food or more likely toskimp on important vitamins. This is not to say big changes are necessarily wrong (think of civil rights, which was an earth shattering change to the status quo, but a slam dunk from the perspective of moral reasoning), but just that often, the bigger the change, the more carefully one has to think about the ramifications and more likely the change will need a careful and thoughtful defense.

Anyway, after all this philosophizing, I jumped on board with the project, because sometimes excessive thinking can be a perverse kind of paralysis in itself. For me, the gains of democratic activism, community participation, and consciousness raising about obesity far outweighed my ivory tower doubts about whether this campaign would change American life as we know it. Rather, it will make some kind of positive difference, and that is enough for me.


4 Responses to “Value the Meal”

  1. 1 David Short
    July 29, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    This was interesting, and I certainly agree with most of your points. However, I think your contention that this evades criticisms that this should be about parental responsibility is flawed. Yes, children have time when they are uncontrolled by their parents; however, how are they getting the money to buy McDonald’s for themselves if they’re still at this “impressionable” age where advertising somehow magically effects them more than anyone else? If you don’t want your kids eating bad food, then feed them healthy food, and don’t give them $10 every time they ask for it. Ultimately, I think decreasing the advertising focused towards children would be a beneficial goal, but one that should probably exist much more broadly than just aiming at fast food. I think the Christian indoctrination of children under the guise of healthy eating that comes with Veggie Tales is just as insidious as Ronald McDonald. (interesting random side note about the effectiveness of advertising, a study a while back found that over half of chinese children identify McDonald’s as a domestic brand)

    • 2 questionbeggar
      July 29, 2010 at 3:41 pm

      David! Thanks for this response.

      Yes, some nice points. I think the factoid about branding in China is pretty startling, and your point about alternative forms of indoctrination is very real and something I didn’t think about.

      Still, I want to put the point about parental involvement a little differently in response to your concerns. You say that parents shouldn’t give spending money to their kids if they know they will buy fast food, and that seems right, and in fact there are many many things parents could do to reduce fast food consumption by their kids. I used the shock collar as a fanciful example, but they might check what the friends of their kids eat, or they might give them less money, or they might cook more, etc etc. Still though, these activities have costs, and a parent might think that rather than having each parent use many costly monitoring strategies to protect their kids, they could all get together and attack the source of their kids demand for unhealthy food (obviously, it would only be one source of their desire for fast food. The taste is probably important too).

      But if this is easier, than attacking marketing just IS the fulfillment of their parental responsibilities, just through a collective and possibly more efficient/effective avenue.

      Glad you stopped to read a little bit.

  2. 3 J-Stew
    August 8, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    Hey David,

    Good comment.

    Child advertising and marketing in general isn’t something that I had thought much about before. I was really influenced by a couple of books/documentaries that I’ve read on the history of advertising. Google Edward Bernays for more on that.

    You should take a look at a couple of things:

    1. Google “The Nag Factor” and “Pester Power.” Here’s a brief description of it from the Center for a New American Dream. http://www.newdream.org/kids/poll.php
    2. Corporations wouldn’t spend the amount of $$ advertising directly to kids unless it was EXTREMELY effective. I’m of the opinion that kids shouldn’t be marketed to PERIOD, which used to be the case before the 70’s before the FTC lost the power to regulate that kind of marketing. As a result, the purchasing power of kids and teens has exploded. Check out The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (started at Harvard) for more resources. http://www.commercialexploitation.org/

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