Roy Bergold: Tales from McDonald’s | June 2010 | By Roy T. Bergold Jr.

Is Obesity Really Our Fault?

Childhood obesity is skyrocketing, and quick serves are unfairly getting the blame.

Roy Bergold
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Nobody ever accused Mom or Grandma’s cooking of being a prime contributor to childhood obesity. So why blame the quick-service industry? One out of three kids is classified as overweight or obese. And our marketing is getting the blame.

When I was at the big guy, we were extremely aware of our obligation to kids. Sure, we marketed to kids. As Ray Kroc said, if you had $1 to spend on marketing, spend it on kids, because they bring mom and dad. But we tried to play fair. Our commercials were little stories about good and evil solved by Ronald McDonald and ended with the kids and Ronald at a McDonald’s. But we never told kids to buy or taste anything. There was strictly no sell language in the ads. We used small portions, like the regular hamburger and small fries. And we never advertised Coca-Cola because of caffeine content. We showed orange drink and shakes.

Our promotions, like the Happy Meal, had one premium per week, encouraging one out of 21 meals at McDonald’s. And the premiums were of the highest quality. One of the first times we did glasses, after the promotion started, we found out that there was a slight amount of lead in the paint. It was way under restrictions, but it was decided to recall the glasses out of concern for our customers. Can you imagine what that cost? I was never more proud of my company.

We had a written manual that told the men playing Ronald how to be Ronald—how to interact with kids, correct language, and what to do when certain problems occurred. Again, it was all out of concern for our customers.

So why are quick serves in so much trouble for marketing to kids? First, let’s explore the issue.

Obesity is a function of what kids eat, how much they eat, and how much exercise they get, omitting the medical issues like metabolism. What they eat is controlled pretty much by parents and schools with lunch programs. Ditto on how much they eat. And exercise, to a great extent, is simply getting the kid up and moving.

Kids are concerned about how they look. I know of a third grader who wants to play sports, but he is heavy. He went to his uncle, who happens to be a coach, and asked for help. They do care.

So what contributes to the problem? I contend it’s marketers, parents, society’s idea of cool, and schools. Let’s look at each, and then I have some solutions.

Marketers: Some alleged numbers: On Saturday morning TV, kids see seven ads per hour touting high fat and sugar. According to recent stats, we’re spending $15 billion annually on kid advertising. Kids see as many as 100 messages a day. The charge is that we are creating an army of sugar-high automatons.

Parents: Parents should totally control their kids. Yeah, right. Research says that seven-year-olds and younger accept what we say in advertising as the truth. Heck, three-year-olds can identify brands using just their corporate logos. According to a survey commissioned by the Center for a New American Dream back in 2002, the average kid asks his parent for something nine times before the parent gives in. Ten percent of 12- and 13-year-olds ask for something more than 50 times before the parent gives in. And 55 percent of kids say their parents just cave. What’s a mother to do under this assault?

“I love the family dinner idea, so why not have it in the restaurant? How about a healthy kids’ meal that you get a special prize for ordering?”

Society: We want our kids to be experts in tennis, martial arts, dance, violin, chess, soccer, and wine. So, we set up a schedule for after school and Saturday that not only is it exhausting to the kid, but the parent, too. It’s all in the name of broadening their horizons. I broadened my horizons as a kid by finding out what library paste tasted like and contemplating the iron pole and its relationship to my tongue on a cold day.

Schools: They feed kids five times a week, right? Only 6 percent of school lunch programs meet the United States Department of Agriculture guidelines. The schools respond that they can feed them anything, but if they won’t eat it, what’s the point?

So, Roy’s thoughts on solutions: Let’s stick to moderation, control, and education.

Moderation is the backbone of a famous weight-control program. You can eat anything as long as you don’t eat too much or too often—you don’t have to deny yourself anything. So it can be for kids.

I’m afraid control is a parental issue, with a little help from the schools. But come on guys, let’s give parents a little help. Let’s write a “Just Say No” program for parents teaching them how to say “no” without inflicting traumatic scars or losing the love of their offspring. I love the family dinner idea, so why not have it in the restaurant? How about a healthy kids’ meal that you get a special prize for ordering, and once per week it’s a hamburger and fries? How about only allowing advertising of healthy food in kids’ programming?

Or let’s do a marketing program as an industry that makes healthy foods cool to eat. I’m going to say it anyway: Let’s be truthful in our advertising to kids about product merits. And, how about a quick-serve-sponsored exercise and outdoors program executed by the schools?

I, for one, am tired of being blamed for kid obesity because of my marketing tactics. Again, if we don’t do something, here come the feds. More guidelines and bans of fast food from advertising in kids’ programming, even though it has been shown in a couple of countries that doing so does not decrease the level of obesity. I would love to see an industry-funded committee of parents, kids, marketers, and educators attack the problem with no government intervention. What can we do to prevent kid obesity? And you can’t say anything negative. Let the participants determine their own fate.

Happy Trails and the Most Peaceful Life.

Roy Bergold

Roy started his career at the Leo Burnett Company in 1967. Two years later he decided to sell hamburgers instead, and began his adventure at McDonald’s. Starting as an assistant advertising manager, he became manager, national advertising manager, director of advertising and promotion, assistant vice president of advertising and promotion, and vice president of advertising.

Roy retired from McDonald’s in 2001 as Chief Creative Officer. Along the way, he was responsible for U.S., as well as all advertising worldwide. While under his care, McDonald’s earned every creative award possible, including Cannes, Clios, and the Four A’s best five year campaign. Roy lives happily in Payson, Arizona, with his wife, dogs, and horses.