Sue Dibb, Co-director of the Food Commission,
on how McDonald's exploits children in its advertising

Sue Dibb is Co-director of the Food Commission, an Independent non-profit consumer organisation, and co-editor of its journal, The Food Magazine. She was an expert defence witness in the McLibel trial, testifying on advertising and children.

Sue is author of Children: Advertisers' Dream. Nutrition Nightmare? The Case for More Responsibility in Food Advertising (National Food Alliance) 1993. She is also an author and consultant on books, reports, TV programmes on children and food.

Sue Dibb was interviewed in 1997 by One-Off Productions for their TV documentary, McLibel: Two Worlds Collide.

[ sue dibb ]

In what ways does McDonald's tempt children into coming to its restaurants over and over?

Well, Birthday Party treats are one way. Now they're obviously very enjoyable and children like going to them, but of course that's just another way of tempting children to go into McDonald's and perhaps once they've been in for a birthday treat they want to go back in time and time again.

How do children feel who don't go to McDonald's?

I think that the way that McDonald's promote themselves is very much that, everybody goes to McDonald's and that McDonald's is the place that all children love, and therefore if you're a child and you don't get taken to McDonald's then perhaps you're going to feel left out and unhappy about that.

For children it's very important to feel that you belong ...

And children, I suppose, very much want to feel as though they belong to something.

For children it's very important to feel that you belong and that you're not different from other children - and if all your friends are talking about the time their parents took them to McDonald's you're very much going to want your parents to take you there as well.

Could you tell us about McDonald's schools packs?

McDonald's like many food companies have produced packs for schools. Now these are so-called educational packs, but there have been questions about how educational some of these materials that go into schools really are, and perhaps some of them are more to do with advertising and promotions than they are to do with education. The National Consumer Council recently took a look at some of these packs, including the McDonald's one, and they concluded that while there were useful educational opportunities in these packs, there was also a great deal of promotion as well, and that McDonald's products were featured very prominently in some of the exercises that children were asked to do.

Could you comment on this quote from McDonald's confidential Operations Manual: 'Ronald loves McDonald's ... children exert influence... you should do everything you can to appeal to children's love for Ronald and McDonald's' (not full quote)

I think that by employing that strategy they are really exploiting children. They are exploiting children's special relationship that they have with characters like Ronald McDonald, and they're using that to encourage children to go to McDonald's and I think there's a question of whether it's right for any company to do that. One could say that in fact it was cynical exploitation of children.

One could say that in fact it was cynical exploitation of children.

[ dibb sue ]

Could you also comment on this quote from the trial, by McDonald's head of marketing: 'Children are virgin ground as far as marketing is concerned'.

McDonald's know that children are very open to advertising and they know that it has an effect. It obviously encourages children to come to McDonald's and to eat their products. In describing children as virgin territory it just shows that, whatever they may say publicly, privately they really are working through children and using children and I think there's a question of whether its morally right for them to be doing that.

Do you know about the case in the States of the advertising that was banned for calling McDonald's food nutritious. They still say that 'everytime you eat at McDonald's you will be eating good, nutritious food'. What would you say about that?

Much of McDonald's food is high in fat and high in sugar, and these aren't the kind of nutrients that children need to eat more of. In fact, we're all recommended to eat less fats and sugars. It's rather difficult to eat a balanced, nutritional meal in McDonald's. Much of their food is rather low in fibre and it's also quite high in salt as well as being high in fats and sugars and therefore what most people would understand to be good, nutritious food isn't what McDonald's is serving to its customers. So if McDonald's are calling their food 'nutritious' then I think that they are perhaps being misleading in the sense that most people would understand the use of the word 'nutritious'.

In Norway and Sweden they don't permit any advertising directed towards children under the age of 12.

What changes would you like to see to the law in this country?

In this country we have a system that does place some restrictions on the advertising of some products to children, but in other countries there are much tougher restrictions. For example, in the Scandinavian countries - in Norway and Sweden - they don't permit any advertising directed towards children under the age of 12 and that means that children in those countries see far less advertising than children in the UK. Other countries place restrictions on the timing of products - for example in the Netherlands confectionery advertisements must carry a health warning. And what we've been campaigning for in this country is for tougher restrictions - particularly of fatty and sugary foods to children. We think that these are the kinds of products that shouldn't be advertised at such high levels to children as they currently are.

How does the UK compare to the USA?

In both the UK and the US there are pretty high levels of advertising to children, although if you compare the UK to the rest of Europe, the UK certainly comes out as one of the top countries in terms of the amount of advertising to children. Many other European countries have far less advertising towards children.

What is wrong with advertising to children?

There are a number of issues when one is looking at the advertising of products to children, particularly when it comes to food. Food advertising is generally the largest category of advertising to children, and I've been involved in surveys that have looked at exactly what it is that is being advertised towards children, and it is generally the fatty and sugary food, the foods that do very little to contribute to a healthy balanced diet, these are the foods that are very highly advertised. One of our concerns is just the sheer amount of food advertising for products that one could call ' unhealthy food products' which are being advertised towards children. From a nutritional point of view that probably isn't very sensible.

Therefore food advertising to children really does present a nutritionally unbalanced message and they're being encouraged to consume foods that really they should be encouraged to consume less of.

Looking more generally at advertising as a whole towards children, there is a question of whether it is right to advertise towards children, given that young children can not fully understand what advertising is all about - young children can not necessarily distinguish between advertisements and programmes, in fact many of the advertisements use cartoon characters that are often very similar to the cartoon characters used in programming, so is it right to advertise when children do not fully understand the commercial message that is being put across to them? They get the message that it's 'buy, buy - to want', but they don't yet have the critical faculties to assess that product in any context - to make the kinds of decisions that an adult would be able to make about the purchase of products.

[ dibb dibb ]

What do you feel about advertising in general - to adults as well as children?

Advertising is very much - has become - an accepted part of our culture. And advertising in this country is very creative, there's a lot of money that goes into it and there's a lot of talent behind it. People generally find advertising amusing and of interest, but what they often forget is that the primary purpose of advertising is to persuade you to buy something. And, I'm sure that advertisers wouldn't be spending so much money on advertising their products if it didn't persuade us to do that. We often like to think that we're immune to advertising - it's not us who buys these products - it's somebody else.

But advertising operates often on an unconscious level - we're not necessarily conscious of the influences which effect the choices that we make, and advertising IS in there. Obviously there's a lot of factors that go into making decisions to purchase a product, but advertisers know that the effects of their advertising can certainly influence what we purchase.

Could you explain a little about McDonald's non-direct advertising?

McDonald's are very heavily involved in different kinds of sponsorship events. They may be involved in schools for example. They've sponsored sporting events in schools where children are given vouchers for free McDonald's burgers, and they are also involved in trying to set up McDonald's restaurants in hospitals, and they've also sponsored such things as Ronald McDonald house at Great Ormond Street. Now by doing this they're doing two things. Firstly, they are trying to associate their products with a healthy image - for example having a McDonald's in a hospital - it's like an endorsement that this is a healthy product. After all, why would it be in a hospital if it wasn't a healthy product? And secondly, they are trying to associate themselves with charitable events - with good causes. Who would argue with setting up a house for parents at Great Ormond Street? It's obviously needed and it's obviously of great benefit but at the same time McDonald's do benefit greatly with it by associating themselves with something positive and therefore may be hoping to deflect any kind of negative criticism of other aspects of their operations.

Could you explain how McDonald's benefit from these associations?

McDonald's obviously reap a great deal of benefit in terms of their public image by associating themselves with good causes, but they also benefit because it's another opportunity to get their logo displayed on whatever it is. The sad thing is that actually no commercial company these days is prepared to be involved in any sponsorship deal unless they get a great deal of benefit out of it in terms of promotion and advertising. It's simply another form of advertising and marketing for them.

But if they truly wanted to benefit the community, why would they have to insist on putting their logo over everything?

McDonald's said that without advertising they would have no business. Why do you think this is the case particularly with McDonald's?

I think McDonald's are very clearly here showing the effect that advertising has. They know that if they didn't advertise that there would be much less demand for their products among children. They know that by keeping up that saturation of advertising that it's keeping McDonald's in the forefront of every child's mind, and they hope to be the first choice when children come to wanting to eat out.

Surely all companies advertise their products, what's different about McDonald's?

Children do see a lot of advertising. McDonald's certainly aren't the only advertisers. But I think what makes McDonald's different is that they are one of a number of advertisers that are advertising week in week out at quite a high level compared with a number of other products.

[ dibb dibb ]

So McDonald's say that without advertising they would have no business. Why do you think this is the case?

McDonald's know that by advertising it keeps McDonald's - and not another company - in the forefront of children's minds. So what they're saying is that they know that you can get burgers and milkshakes in any number of outlets but what they want you to do is to come to McDonald's and so they have to keep up that level of advertising to encourage you to go to McDonald's and not one of their competitors. But at the same time what we've seen alongside this is not just a choice of shall I go to McDonald's? or shall I go to another burger chain?, it's also about increasing our consumption of burgers and milkshakes and increasing the number of times that we go to McDonald's. It's about keeping up that level of advertising, and what we've seen over the last twenty odd years or however long McDonald's have been here, has been a real increase in the consumption of these kinds of foods.

[ sue sue ]

So would you go so far as to say McDonald's is all image?

I think a lot of the appeal of McDonald's is its image. Its image it puts across in its advertising, it's the image that it has in its stores. I think the food itself is probably nothing special but the image of the fun place to be is obviously what appeals to children.

How were you treated in the witness box by McDonald's QC? Were you impressed by him?

It's a fairly intimidating experience standing up in the witness box, but I guess that's the way our courts are designed to be - adversarial. I'm used to arguing about the issues but I was less used to being attacked personally by Richard Rampton and I didn't find that a particularly pleasant experience. But when it came to his arguments he was really just trotting out the same industry arguments that I've heard time and time again. Arguments which I don't think anybody of any real intelligence takes that seriously.

What kind of arguments?

Well, they really were just the same tired old arguments that I've heard from the advertising industry time and time again. That surely advertising doesn't have any real effect, that we should give children more credit, that children are quite capable of understanding what advertising is all about, that they're fully capable of making the kinds of decisions that you would expect adults to make. Well, all the evidence shows that this just isn't true.

Surely advertising does have an important effect, and children aren't adults, and we have to recognise them as a special category.

Everybody is aware that McDonald's is a very litigious company and and that can be intimidating for many people.

Did you have any hesitations when you were asked to appear in this trial?

Initially, when Helen and Dave first approached me to appear, I was slightly cautious. But when I looked at what Helen and Dave were wanting to do, I had tremendous admiration for both of them and I wanted to come and appear and give my expert opinion in the trial. I felt that was very important because I think what this trial has brought out is that individuals like Dave and Helen can appear in court and, and can take on the legal weight of a company like McDonald's and I think that's very important for British justice.

How did you feel after you came out of the witness box?

I felt quite pleased with the way that I'd presented my case, the information that I'd wanted to get over, but it had also been a pretty intimidating experience. I think I decided after having survived that that I should never be afraid of too much else for the rest of my life.

See also:

  • Sue Dibb Witness Statement
  • Full References of Sue Dibb