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Industry lobbyists, execs take SF toy ban seriously

As voters went to the polls on Election Day, many restaurant marketers were following one issue more closely than the congressional contests: an effort by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to override Mayor Gavin Newsom’s promised veto of a proposed ban on restaurant toys.

Called the Healthy Meal Incentive legislation, which closely resembles a ban already in place in unincorporated Santa Clara County, Calif., the law would restrict restaurants from using toys to market meals to children, unless those offerings met stringent nutritional requirements. 

While industry advocates opposed the ban as government overreach, the legislation’s champion, supervisor Eric Mar, called the proposal a “very modest effort to support our parents in San Francisco — our teachers and kids’ efforts to choose more nutritious options.”

“Fast-food restaurants target children and youth by offering toys and other incentive items,” said Mar and two other supervisors in a statement accompanying a draft of the ban. “The Healthy Meal Incentive legislation would encourage restaurants to provide healthier meal options.” 

The problem with that argument, restaurateurs and industry supporters maintain, is that restaurant chains’ menus and marketing for kids already have changed drastically to include nutritious items and de-emphasize kids’ meal toys in commercials. Marketing messages to children now focus on balanced, active lifestyles more than before, they added. Most importantly, there’s no scientific evidence that eliminating toys would reduce child obesity.

At press time, the toy ban’s fate had not been decided, but industry players acknowledged that no matter the outcome, Pandora’s box has been opened and the specter of further scrutiny of restaurants’ marketing practices has been raised. In order to get past the counterproductive “predatory marketers versus the nanny state” debate, they said, restaurants need to become more forceful in promoting all the good they do to produce a more workable nutritional solution and support educational efforts.

A misguided proposal

Testifying before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Economic Development Committee in September, Karen Wells, vice president of strategy and menu for McDonald’s USA, said the city’s proposal would undermine parents’ authority and responsibility for what they feed their children.

“Denying a child a toy is not the full solution to the very important issue of children’s well-being and childhood obesity,” Wells said. “We have not found any support or science or recognized nutritional guidance or consumer behavior that would support that.”

The industry’s largest marketers of children’s meals already have taken steps to do so responsibly, advocates point out. Since 2006, McDonald’s has participated in the voluntary Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative with the Better Business Bureau. To comply with that program, McDonald’s advertises no meal with more than 600 calories to children 12 or younger, and the brand limits its tie-ins with movies or pop-culture characters to cover only “healthy lifestyle messages.” Recent branded promotions included “Go for the Green” with Shrek and “One Minute to Move It” with the characters from “Madagascar: Escape to Africa.”

Burger King signed on to the initiative in 2007, and the chain advertises meals that contain no more than 560 calories and refrains from advertising on any program whose audience is mostly 6-year-olds or younger.

However, Bob Cutler, chief executive of kid-focused agency Creative Consumer Concepts, or C3, which works with several restaurant brands, said no good-faith efforts from restaurants would satisfy legislators or trial lawyers looking to advance their careers by making the industry the scapegoat for obesity.

“The challenge is that the minute you make an offer or negotiate on the issue, what you do is accept that restaurants are responsible for obesity,” Cutler said.

Chris Evans, C3’s executive creative director, added that activists ignore the fact that many chains don’t advertise what toys they offer, meaning the children don’t know what they’re getting until their parents have purchased the meal.

“A lot of our clients don’t advertise directly to children at all, and they’ll be punished, even when their products are purely educational,” Evans said.

Many focus their kids’ meal toys and packaging on promoting active lifestyles, Evans said, citing work for C3 clients like Red Lobster, whose “Clawde’s Cove” characters include a skateboarding lobster, or C3’s first client, Sonic Drive-In, whose “Accent on Kids (A.O.K.)” program promotes education, fitness and parent-child interaction.

Cooking up a response

Jot Condie, chief executive of the California Restaurant Association, said restaurants can fight the toy ban from the kitchen, undermining activists’ arguments with continued menu innovation. Major chains offering milk and fruit side dishes — Apple Dippers at McDonald’s, Apple Fries at Burger King and Mandarin orange wedges at Wendy’s come to mind — aren’t just refuting the industry’s blame for obesity, but also accommodating their guests, he added.

“Restaurants, more than most industries, are nimble and respond quicker to consumer demands because they retool their offerings quickly,” Condie said. “It’s not major news when a restaurant has a menu item that’s low-fat or low-sodium or a new item geared toward those living healthier lifestyles. How do you make it news?”

Restaurant marketing consultant Aaron Allen agrees that chains need to keep offering healthful products, but he 
acknowledges that a national food supply geared toward producing the most food fastest and cheapest makes that development expensive.

“In big-chain headquarters, there are advocates at the company that want to offer more nutritious products and are racking their brains, but that supply chain prevents them from doing it,” Allen said. “You can’t put an apple on a tray for less than three times its weight in French fries. Until that equation gets broken, it’ll still be difficult to implement full change.”

Move the conversation

Restaurants not only should control their contribution to the “calories in” side of the equation, experts agreed, but they also could help educate consumers about the “calories out” side by encouraging physically active lifestyles. While many restaurants’ campaigns to children cover those bases, Condie said, it still may be worthwhile to develop an industrywide program — similar to the “Play 60” effort developed by the National Football League — or to support an existing one, such as first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative.

“We could do more in showing the public that we’re behind an educational effort,” Condie said. “I know that the NRA is working closely with the first lady on her campaign, and we could model what she’s doing in the states. … The author of the promotion ban in San Francisco or in Santa Clara — you don’t see them doing what the first lady is doing: gathering all the stakeholders and coming up with strategies for what everyone could do a little bit differently.”

Marketing expert Allen sees the emerging urban-farming movement as an opportunity for restaurants to teach kids about healthful food choices and increase its green credibility.

“Longer term, we should reward eating habits that are better,” Allen said. “Kids are impressionable; that’s why people have a problem with the toys. … In terms of community programs, why not sponsor on a local basis some urban-farming initiatives? The industry could really get behind it. … We’re slow to adopt as an industry because we want to see something proven. Now everybody wants to copy Starbucks, but back then nobody would have told you in a focus group that you should sell $5 coffee.”

Solving the problem of childhood obesity would take “a societal shift toward healthier eating more than banning a toy,” and governments at all levels could work toward that through education, said Kevin Westlye, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association.

“To me, the first place we should look would be to the budgeted dollars per day used to feed our children in public schools, specifically K-6,” he said. “That’s a problem San Francisco has started to address, but it’s hard because to meet their budgets, they were buying frozen foods and having them shipped from Illinois rather than having the food be fresh and local.”

Governments could develop a gardening curriculum at local schools, Westlye suggested, and could start teaching kids to foster good food habits when they’re young enough that it’s likely to make a lasting difference. He also urged school districts to rethink cutting gym and recess for kids, though he conceded that funding issues force those moves.

At the least, the industry should be more boastful of what restaurants do to effect positive change, like incorporating active lifestyles into its toys and marketing, sponsoring Little League teams and raising funds for charities, Cutler said.

“Restaurants wouldn’t be successful if parents thought their kids were being exploited,” he said. “The industry needs to say that we’re proud of what we’ve done. We’ve demonstrated our responsibility in an appropriate manner, and we’re not going to assume any culpability.”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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