Just recently, I traveled across the United States, to Chicago, to speak with Don Thompson, CEO of McDonald’s. I was motivated to speak with him after my eight-year-old son received a coupon from McDonalds for improving academically. Having fast food advertised to my son in his own elementary school without my consent made things very serious. I wanted to tell Don about my childhood eating disorder and how it was triggered by their junk food advertising. I wanted to start a conversation about eating disorders and junk food marketing to children.
When I close my eyes and I think about my childhood, I remember being anxious, feeling like things were out of my control, sneaking food from the cabinets and eating at meal times until my stomach hurt. I remember associating McDonald’s Happy Meals with happiness. And just like any other child, I wanted to be happy.
My eating disorder started around 1st grade after we moved into a new city. My brother and I ended up watching lots of television as my parents were packing and getting things ready. I remember being very worried about going to a new school, but obsessing over McDonald’s commercials on television. By 2nd grade, my school pictures displayed a very different young girl. I was very chubby by then and I remember the other kids calling me names like “fatso,” “tubby,” “roly poly,” “tub of lard” and “fattie.” Those words hurt me more deeply than I even wish to admit, so I ate more because by that time I associated food with happiness. I would beg my mom to take me to McDonald’s and I got to go about once a week. By the time I was an adult, my eating disorder was out of control and my body expanded to a size 22, which is morbidly obese.
I was a statistic.
It wasn’t until I became a new mom, that I had the strength to stop my runaway addiction. Staring in the eyes of my first baby, I wanted a better life for him. I wanted him to be healthy and I understood I had to change my life to give him a better one. Eight years later, my resting heat rate is at 60 beats per minute; I’m incredibly healthier and about 100 lbs smaller. Above all, my home is a healthy one, so soda and McDonald's are not welcome here.
That’s why, when I saw Don just half a room away at his shareholders’ meeting last week, I sprinted towards him to tell my story in hopes he would consider the potential damage marketing junk food to young children might have. After all, McDonalds spends untold billions advertising and driving the epidemic of diet-related disease.
In front of a packed room, I shook Don’s hand, told him my story, and begged him to stop advertising to children. His response? He laughed at me. “Happy Meals can’t give you an eating disorder, my dear” was his response as he was laughing.
It was apparent in a minute that he was out of touch.
McDonald’s spends untold billions in marketing to take advantage of children’s developmental vulnerabilities and hook them on unhealthy food and destructive eating habits. Through Ronald McDonald, the corporation has pioneered marketing deadly products to children at a scale comparable only to Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man. McDonald’s profits depend on exploiting young children and turning them into customers for life. This marketing not only hooks kids on unhealthy food, it creates destructive habits in minds that are still developing. McDonald's is like crack for kids.
Pediatricians and public health professionals worldwide agree with me. For instance, Dr. Tanya Altman, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and Author of Mommy Calls, told me, “Unhealthy food and fast food advertisements directly impact young children, influencing them to want and crave such unhealthy food items. This directly leads to unhealthy eating patterns in children.” Likewise, Dr. Alan Greene, who serves as the official Pediatrician on The Dr. Oz Show and Author of Raising Baby Green, told me, “I believe advertising to children can have a profound impact on them and their food choices, even triggering and cultivating eating disorders.”
Prominent health organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics echo this sentiment, concluding that marketing to children is inherently deceptive and the American Psychological Association has determined that advertising junk food to children increases childhood obesity. It takes till about junior high until the average child understands the persuasive intent of marketing. So it makes sense that I associated Happy Meals with happiness because I trusted grownups (i.e. the narratives designed by McDonald’s marketing executives) to tell me the truth.
We are now at a critical moment in history. One in three children born in the US in the year 2000 is expected to develop diabetes, and kids in this generation may be the first ever to live shorter lifespans than their parents. These statistics are staggering. But these children, like me, are more than statistics. They are human beings who deserve a healthy, thriving future. As long as McDonald’s markets to kids, eating disorders and other unhealthy eating behaviors will also be part of our future.
But you can rest assured that moms like me will continue to call Don Thompson out for devastating marketing practices directed at young defenseless children.
Mr. Don Thompson, hands off my kids!