McDonalds found guilty of serving up junk food advertising online

McDonald’s Happy Meal website has been found guilty of serving up a side of junk food advertising to children after the Advertising Standards Board (ASB) deemed the fast food chain website in breach of several parts of the industry self-regulatory code.

The Advertising Standards Board (ASB) upheld a Cancer Council NSW complaint about the McDonald’s Happy Meal website which features the Happy Meal logo on all pages including the games pages, the toys pages and the activity pages. Many of the McDonald’s characters also feature. Last year, following a ruling that the website was not advertising to children, Cancer Council NSW presented a petition with 510 signatures to the Board showing the community was concerned that the website was promoting Happy Meals to children.

Recently, the Board found that the website had breached numerous clauses of the voluntary code for advertising to children, including promoting unhealthy food choices by using characters and online interactive games aimed at children.

Kathy Chapman, Director of Health Strategies at Cancer Council NSW said she was pleased that the ASB has finally recognised that children are vulnerable to online fast food advertising, and websites and social media are yet another avenue brands are using to target children, “we know that junk food companies are increasingly looking to other, less regulated, avenues like websites and social media to promote unhealthy products to children. Cancer Council welcomes this announcement from the ASB, as it shows they are finally responding to the community voice.

“The most pressing question that needs to be addressed is why does McDonald’s have a website that promotes online games and licensed McDonald’s characters for children, if they continue to say they aren’t trying to promote Happy Meals to children?”

Ms Chapman said regulations should prevent companies from promoting junk food to children through websites, online games, and other tactics designed to sell meals packed with unhealthy ingredients.

“What we would really like to see is the introduction of tougher regulations for websites, so brands can’t use games and other gimmicks to advertise unhealthy foods to children, who will in turn pester their parents to purchase.” she said.


Media Contact: Gina Murphy PR Officer Cancer Council NSW, 02-9334 1428/ 0413 889283

Notes to Editor:

Australian Quick Service Restaurant Industry Initiative (QSRI) for Responsible Advertising and Marketing to Children is a voluntary self-regulatory initiative which aims to ensure that only food and beverages that represent healthier choices are advertised to children; and to help parents and guardians make informed product choices for their children. Under this initiative, all marketing communications and advertising of food and beverage combinations to children under-14 years must represent healthier choices, as determined by a defined set of nutrition criteria for assessing children’s meals. The definition of “˜media’ includes internet sites. This Initiative commenced on 1 August 2009. The companies who have signed up to the Initiative are Chicken Treat, Hungry Jack’s, KFC, McDonald’s, Oporto, Pizza Hut and Red Rooster. The complaints process for the Initiative is administered by the Advertising Standards Bureau with the Advertising Standards Board being the body that considers complaints.

Previous complaint.

In April 2011 a complaint about the Happy Meal website was dismissed by the Advertising Standards Board (Case 0103/11).

The Board considered that this website does not promote the organisation (McDonald’s) or the Happy Meal product or actively encourage children to buy the product”.

“The Board cautioned that advertiser owned microsites directed to children must clearly avoid any reference to particular products and minimise organisational promotion in order for the website as a whole NOT to be considered as an advertising and marketing communication”.  

In July 2011 Cancer Council NSW wrote to the ASB after Junkbusters collected 510 signatories to a petition stating that the Happy Meal website is advertising to children, The petition demonstrated community concern and that the definition of “˜advertising and marketing communication’ should be amended to reflect the strong community sentiment.

Fiona Jolly, CEO, ASB replied that she would not refer the case to the Board for reconsideration but if the website changed it could be subject to a new complaint

This complaint

Case 0221/12

McDonald’s in reply to the complaint: “We confirm our view which has been put to the ASB on previous occasions, that the Website is not correctly characterised as “advertising and marketing communications” but is in fact a product itself. 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.”

Advertising Standards Board Determination:

It noted that the image of a hot air balloon with the logo “Happy Meal” is prominent on the screen at all times. The Board noted that each of the Games commences with a depiction of the same Happy Meal logo on the game screen. The Board noted that each Toy page includes the statement “one toy per Happy meal”, in the case of the Pokémon toy a statement “Every Pokémon Happy Meal toy comes with”¦”, in the case of the Ice Age toys the statement “one toy per Happy meal”, that the Activity pages include similar statements, with each Paper Art downloadable kit being headed with the Happy Meal logo and the Robot selector including the Happy Meal logo at all stages. The Board also noted that the website includes functionality to enable a child to become a member and that the registration or log in page invites children to “customise your Happy Meal experience. Parents can join up too.”

The Board also noted the advertiser’s argument that the micro site is “not for the promotion of food or beverages, but is an extension of the Happy Meal product and brand.” The Board strongly disagreed with this argument – noting that the Happy Meal product is, as known and purchased throughout Australia comprised of various food items, a beverage and a toy. The Board noted that the product has evolved in recent years to give consumers a choice of food and beverage products but that the essential characteristic of the product itself has not changed. The Board determined that the micro site is not an “extension” of that product and is not part of that product.

In the Board’s view the Happy Meal website makes significant reference to a product “Happy Meal” throughout all pages and stages of the website. In the Board’s view it has no choice other than to conclude that the micro site draws the attention of visitors to that site to the McDonald’s product “Happy Meal” and, in the Board’s view, the attention drawing nature of the website is intended either directly or indirectly to promote Happy Meals.   The Board therefore determined that the micro site is an advertising or marketing communication for a product Happy Meals.

“¦the promotion of a “happy meal” in general terms is the promotion of ALL happy meals. The Board noted that the advertiser is required by their initiative to only show food and beverages that represent healthier choices to children. In the Board’s view, the lack of depiction of the healthier choice Happy Meal is a breach of 4.1(a) of the QSR Initiative. The Board considered that this breach would be remedied by the inclusion in a prominent position on the website of the Happy Meal products which meet the defined Nutrition criteria for assessing children’s meals.

“¦ having already determined that the micro site breaches 4.1 (by promoting all Happy Meals not just the healthier choice Happy Meal) the Board agreed that the microsite’s depiction of the various licensed characters is a breach of 4.2 of the Initiative.

For the same reason the Board determined that the Interactive Games on the micro site which featured licensed characters   also breached   4.4 of the Initiative.

The Board determined that the advertisement breached articles 4.1, 4.2 and 4.4 of the QSR Initiative.