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Joanna Weiss

Happy Meals and Old Spice Guy

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / July 25, 2010

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IN THE laudable quest to fight childhood obesity, it’s hard to get kids to exercise, control their portions, and hold the salt. It’s easy to blame the Happy Meal toy. This spring, officials in Santa Clara, California banned toy giveaways with kids’ fast food meals. Last month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest threatened to sue McDonald’s, saying the toys are a deceptive marketing practice.

Of course, there has been backlash, and not just from kids who fear they might miss out on “Last Airbender’’ figurines. A group of competing Save-The-Happy-Meal-Toys Facebook pages has sprung up, each with a fan base of nostalgic hipsters. The Happy Meal, it turns out, isn’t just a bundle of adorably-packaged calories. It’s a bundle of adorably-packaged calories that represents childhood.

There’s something to be said for the power of marketing, the ways it can influence us even when we think we’re too smart and too cool. Notre Dame University marketing professor Carol Phillips says that when her students brag that they aren’t susceptible to advertising, she points to their shoes, their hats, and their computers.

And she tells them that marketing isn’t limited to ads; it’s packaging, store placement, associations. And entertainment, too, as in last weekend’s brilliant Old Spice social media campaign, in which the suave and shirtless “Old Spice Guy’’ posted YouTube responses to questions asked through Twitter. He offered image advice to President Obama. He helped a guy propose to his girlfriend. He might be the most beloved man in America, even though we know he’s trying to sell us body wash.

It’s too early to know if we’re buying or not, though some old-school marketing gurus have noted that sales of Old Spice are down. For all of its power, advertising has its limits — and ads are a reflection of the marketplace as much as they’re an influence. Ad agencies do assiduous research into what people already want; “Old Spice Guy’’ came about because Procter & Gamble understood that women buy most of their husbands’ body wash, and presumably want it to smell manly.

McDonald’s is buffeted by market forces, too, which is why the fast food giant has taken some baby steps into the wholesome-food game. One way the chain turned sluggish sales around in the early 2000s, Phillips notes, is by putting a few salads on the menu.

Campaigns against obesity have affected the Happy Meal, too: In 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported that Disney executives were balking over Happy Meal tie-ins, in part because they feared an association with fatty food. Today, the main Happy Meals web page mentions fries and soft drinks, but only shows pictures of lowfat milk and apples.

Is it bait-and-switch advertising? Sure. And McDonald’s could be far more aggressive in pushing apples over fries in actual stores. But at this point, are parents really unaware that french fries aren’t a health food?

The anti-Happy Meal types prefer to paint parents as wimps, powerless against a corporate marketing campaign. One anti-Ronald McDonald polemic, issued by a group called Corporate Accountability International, says McDonald’s “undermines parental values’’ and creates “a fundamental restructuring of the family dynamic.’’ The evidence: “Every time a parent has to say no to a child, it’s another let down, another way that a parent has to feel bad about not making that child happy.’’

Well, my kids don’t like it when I tell them they can’t play with knives, but I don’t let it get to me. I also understand that the secret to survival in an ad-heavy world isn’t avoiding marketing, but understanding it. Kids can be taught that what’s on an ad isn’t necessarily what they need. And the power of ads can be harnessed for good. If a YouTube video can make us talk about Old Spice, the right viral campaign could boost the market power of the nectarine.

A healthy lifestyle, after all, has clear appeal, which a clever marketer could surely harness. Today, kids are lured by the Happy Meal in all of its weight-adding splendor. But after a few years, isn’t it likely they’ll want to look like Old Spice Guy, instead?

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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