I have a confession to make. Not only did I used to write cigarette ads, but I also used to make heaps of TV commercials for KFC. By the bucketload. In fact, when it comes to egging on the obesity epidemic in our community, some would say my CV is second to none.
And so it was with some sadness that I read last week that KFC have decided to stop giving out free toys with their kiddies’ meals. ("There goes the nutritious bit," quipped a friend of mine.) The reason for the decision, explained the earnest-sounding Corporate Affairs Manager Zac Rich, was that the idea of free toys had "had its day" and "belonged to another era." Zac went on to explain that KFC were “doing the right thing” and hoped "this will support parents in making dietary decisions on behalf of their children which aren’t influenced… by pressure to choose the meal that has a toy."
He also pointed out that KFC are “a founding member of the Australian Quick Service Industry Initiative for Responsible Advertising to Children.” Hmmm.
The entire announcement sounded uncannily familiar, and then I realized it reminded me of the phony concern we heard only recently from the tobacco marketing industry saying how they were desperately worried about sales of smokes going up.
And eerily similar to the faux-sincerity of the alcohol marketing industry’s self-regulatory body DrinkWise, who announced in May that they had decided to slap health warnings onto bottles of booze. DrinkWise’s stated aim is “to influence a cultural shift in the way Australians drink, so that the next generation of drinkers may view intoxication as unhealthy and socially unacceptable.” Really? Good luck.
For years, irate nutritionists and health activists have criticized the free toys and the "pester power" that they supposedly provoke as one of the great evils of the advertising industry. Get rid of the toys, ran the argument, and kids would no longer drive their parents insane in order to go to KFC or Maccas. Wishful thinking, I'm afraid. Zac was only telling us half the truth when he said that KFC were “pleased to be taking the lead in removing (the toys).” In Australia, yes. But KFC and other fast food chains in the USA got rid of them nearly a decade ago, and - surprise, surprise - it made not a jot of difference to their bottom line, or indeed, to America’s waist line. Moreover, the toys themselves were always regarded as a pain in the butt from a marketer's point of view. Not only were they an added expense on the production line, cumbersome to stock in store, a pain when they ran out and little Jessica was left standing at the counter balling her eyes out, but also there has been the ever-present health and safety risk that a child would inadvertently put an eight-legged wiggly purple monster in his mouth and choke on the damned thing. They were more trouble than they were worth and KFC franchisees will not shed a tear to see the toys disappear.
But the reason for my disappointment is that this is yet another tokenistic and almost certainly forlorn effort to stave off more and more government interference in the marketing of legal products. As with the health labels on alcohol, the recent banning of a tasteless Roger David ad, and other over-reactions, the advertising self-regulatory bodies are increasingly cowing in fear of the plethora of "nanny state" lobby groups.
It’s no surprise that KFC’s altruistic move comes only four months after the Obesity Policy Coalition demanded the banning of junk food advertising during peak children's viewing times, and less than two months after the Australian Medical Association claimed that self-regulation of the fast food industry isn’t working.
So increasingly, we are seeing fearful marketers disguised as concerned self-regulators nervously throwing their opponents a bone to chew on. But by so blatantly accepting the argument that marketing activities – rather than individual parental responsibility, lack of self-discipline and freedom of choice - are to blame for excessive consumption, the industry merely encourages ever-more intrusive rules and regulation. The end game of the lobbyists is unequivocal: "Greater government regulation of fast food advertising is needed to cover the failure of industry self-regulation," claims AMA president Professor Dobb, demanding “junk food ads should be banned altogether.”
Clearly, the bureaucrats’ hunger for ever-stricter regulations won’t ever be satiated. Like a kid at KFC, health activist groups are never going to say "that's it, we've had enough, thanks."
So look forward to more and more token gestures from the ever more desperate self-regulatory marketing bodies. Graphic images of cirrhotic livers on bottles of wine, perhaps, or photos of dying diabetics on your buckets of nuggets?
Until the nanny state succeeds in banning ads altogether.