Writing Project

Eric SchloSSEr

Kid Kustomers

Eric Schlosser has won numerous awards for his exposéstyle journalism, which has appeared in The AtlanticRolling StoneVanity FairThe Nation, and The New Yorker, among other magazines. He has published several best-selling books, including Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market (2003) and, with Charles Wilson, Chew on This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food (2006), which introduces middle school readers to the history of the fast-food industry and the agribusiness and animal-raising practices that the industry fos- ters. Chew on This evolved from Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All- American Meal (2001), from which this reading is taken. Fast Food Nation has been assigned for campuswide reading at many universities, and it inspired a 2006 film version, starring Greg Kinnear. Schlosser’s expertise on America’s food industry has made him a popular lecturer on and off campus. He also has addressed Congress about the risk to the food supply from bioterrorism.

Schlosser’s interest in the fast-food industry extends to the industry’s marketing campaigns and their focus on children, the “kid kustomers” who are featured in this reading. Think back to your own childhood encoun- ters with clever, kid-appealing fast-food packaging. How did the toys, the packaging, and the commercials affect your association with fast food? Do Schlosser’s insights change your thinking about marketing campaigns by fast-food restaurants? If so, how?

Like any good writer, Schlosser uses a number of specific examples to persuade his readers. Keep track of the facts, statistics, and examples he uses, and consider how you might use similar strategies in your own writ- ing. While this reading is just a small part of Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation, in these paragraphs he weaves together strands of an argument about past and present attitudes toward fast food, the intersection of din- ing and consumer culture, and the effects of aggressive marketing to chil- dren. As a public intellectual, Schlosser has helped ignite a conversation about what we eat, and why, that is likely to continue for a long time. It’s a conversation that could change the way you eat and the way you spend money, as well as the way you think.


Twenty-five years ago, only a handful of American companies directed their marketing at children—Disney, McDonald’s, candy makers, toy makers, manufacturers of breakfast cereal. Today children are being tar- geted by phone companies, oil companies, and automobile companies, as well as clothing stores and restaurant chains. The explosion in children’s advertising occurred during the 1980s. Many working parents, feeling guilty about spending less time with their kids, started spending more money on them. One marketing expert has called the 1980s “the decade of the child



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consumer.”1 After largely ignoring children for years, Madison Avenue began to scrutinize and pursue them. Major ad agencies now have chil- dren’s divisions, and a variety of marketing firms focus solely on kids. These groups tend to have sweet-sounding names: Small Talk, Kid Connection, Kid2Kid, the Gepetto Group, Just Kids, Inc. At least three industry publica- tions—Youth Market Alert, Selling to Kids, and Marketing to Kids Report— cover the latest ad campaigns and market research. The growth in chil- dren’s advertising has been driven by efforts to increase not just current, but also future, consumption. Hoping that nostalgic childhood memories of a brand will lead to a lifetime of purchases, companies now plan “cradle-to-grave” advertising strategies. They have come to believe what Ray Kroc and Walt Disney realized long ago—a person’s “brand loyalty” may begin as early as the age of two.2 Indeed, market research has found that children often recognize a brand logo before they can recognize their own name.3

The discontinued Joe Camel ad campaign, which used a hip cartoon character to sell cigarettes, showed how easily children can be influenced by the right corporate mascot. A 1991 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that nearly all of America’s six-year- olds could identify Joe Camel, who was just as familiar to them as Mickey Mouse.4 Another study found that one-third of the cigarettes illegally sold to minors were Camels.5 More recently, a marketing firm conducted a survey in shopping malls across the country, asking children to describe their favorite TV ads. According to the CME KidCom Ad Traction Study II, released at the 1999 Kids’ Marketing Conference in San Antonio, Texas, the Taco Bell commercials featuring a talking chihuahua were the most popular fast food ads.6 The kids in the survey also liked Pepsi and Nike commercials, but their favorite television ad was for Budweiser.

The bulk of the advertising directed at children today has an immedi- ate goal. “It’s not just getting kids to whine,” one marketer explained in Selling to Kids, “it’s giving them a specific reason to ask for the product.”7 Years ago sociologist Vance Packard described children as “surrogate sales-

1James U. McNeal, Kids as Customers: A Handbook of Marketing to Children. Lan- ham, MD: Lexington Books, 1992, p. 6.

2Cited in “Brand Aware,” Children’s Business, June 2000.
3See “Brand Consciousness,” IFF on Kids: Kid Focus, no. 3.
4Paul Fischer et al., “Brand Logo Recognition by Children Aged 3 to 6 Years: Mickey

Mouse and Old Joe the Camel,” Journal of the American Medical Association, December 11, 1991.

5See Judann Dagnoli, “JAMA Lights New Fire Under Camel’s Ads,” Advertising Age, December 16, 1991.

6Cited in “Market Research Ages 6–17: Talking Chihuahua Strikes Chord with Kids,” Selling to Kids, February 3, 1999.

7Quoted in “Market Research: The Old Nagging Game Can Pay Off for Marketers,” Selling to Kids, April 15, 1998.


men” who had to persuade other people, usually their parents, to buy what they wanted.8 Marketers now use different terms to explain the intended response to their ads—such as “leverage,” “the nudge factor,” “pester power.” The aim of most children’s advertising is straightforward: get kids to nag their parents and nag them well.

James U. McNeal, a professor of marketing at Texas A&M University, is considered America’s leading authority on marketing to children. In his book Kids As Customers (1992), McNeal provides marketers with a thor- ough analysis of “children’s requesting styles and appeals.”9 He classifies juvenile nagging tactics into seven major categories. A pleading nag is one accompanied by repetitions of words like “please” or “mom, mom, mom.”
A persistent nag involves constant requests for the coveted product and may include the phrase “I’m gonna ask just one more time.” Forceful nags are extremely pushy and may include subtle threats, like “Well, then, I’ll go and ask Dad.” Demonstrative nags are the most high-risk, often char- acterized by full-blown tantrums in public places, breath-holding, tears, a refusal to leave the store. Sugar-coated nags promise affection in return for
a purchase and may rely on seemingly heartfelt declarations like “You’re the best dad in the world.” Threatening nags are youthful forms of black- mail, vows of eternal hatred and of running away if something isn’t bought. Pity nags claim the child will be heartbroken, teased, or socially stunted if the parent refuses to buy a certain item. “All of these appeals and styles may be used in combination,” McNeal’s research has discovered, “but kids tend to stick to one or two of each that prove most effective . . . for their own parents.”

McNeal never advocates turning children into screaming, breath- holding monsters. He has been studying “Kid Kustomers” for more than thirty years and believes in a more traditional marketing approach.10 “The key is getting children to see a firm . . . in much the same way as [they see] mom or dad, grandma or grandpa,” McNeal argues.11 “Likewise, if a company can ally itself with universal values such as patriotism, national defense, and good health, it is likely to nurture belief in it among children.”

Before trying to affect children’s behavior, advertisers have to learn about their tastes.12 Today’s market researchers not only conduct surveys of children in shopping malls, they also organize focus groups for kids as young as two or three. They analyze children’s artwork, hire children to

8Max Boas and Steve Chain, Big Mac: The Unauthorized Story of McDonald’s. New York: Dutton, 1976. Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders. New York: D. McKay Co., 1957, pp. 158–61.

9McNeal, Kids As Customers, pp. 72–75.
10Ibid., p. 4.
11Ibid., p. 98.
12For a sense of the techniques now being used by marketers, see Tom McGee, “Get-

ting Inside Kids’ Heads,” American Demographics, January 1997.

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run focus groups, stage slumber parties and then question children into the night. They send cultural anthropologists into homes, stores, fast food restaurants, and other places where kids like to gather, quietly and sur- reptitiously observing the behavior of prospective customers. They study the academic literature on child development, seeking insights from the work of theorists such as Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget. They study the fantasy lives of young children, then apply the findings in advertisements and product designs.

Dan S. Acuff—the president of Youth Market System Consulting and the author of What Kids Buy and Why (1997)—stresses the impor- tance of dream research. Studies suggest that until the age of six, roughly 80 percent of children’s dreams are about animals.13 Rounded, soft crea- tures like Barney, Disney’s animated characters, and the Teletubbies therefore have an obvious appeal to young children. The Character Lab, a division of Youth Market System Consulting, uses a proprietary technique called Character Appeal Quadrant Analysis to help companies develop new mascots. The technique purports to create imaginary characters who perfectly fit the targeted age group’s level of cognitive and neurological development.

Children’s clubs have for years been considered an effective means of targeting ads and collecting demographic information; the clubs appeal to a child’s fundamental need for status and belonging. Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club, formed in 1930, was one of the trailblazers. During the 1980s and 1990s, children’s clubs proliferated, as corporations used them to solicit the names, addresses, zip codes, and personal comments of young customers. “Marketing messages sent through a club not only can be per- sonalized,” James McNeal advises, “they can be tailored for a certain age or geographical group.”14 A well-designed and well-run children’s club can be extremely good for business. According to one Burger King executive, the creation of a Burger King Kids Club in 1991 increased the sales of chil- dren’s meals as much as 300 percent.15

The Internet has become another powerful tool for assembling data about children. In 1998 a federal investigation of Web sites aimed at chil- dren found that 89 percent requested personal information from kids; only
1 percent required that children obtain parental approval before supply- ing the information.16 A character on the McDonald’s Web site told chil- dren that Ronald McDonald was “the ultimate authority in everything.”17

13Cited in Dan S. Acuff and Robert H. Reiher, What Kids Buy and Why: The Psychol- ogy of Marketing to Kids. New York: Free Press, 1997, pp. 45–46.

14McNeal, Kids As Customers, p. 175.

15Cited in Karen Benezra, “Keeping Burger King on a Roll,” Brandweek, January 15, 1996.

16Cited in “Children’s Online Privacy Proposed Rule Issued by FTC,” press release, Federal Trade Commission, April 20, 1999.

17Quoted in “Is Your Kid Caught Up in the Web?” Consumer Reports, May 1997.


The site encouraged kids to send Ronald an e-mail revealing their favor- ite menu item at McDonald’s, their favorite book, their favorite sports team—and their name.18 Fast food Web sites no longer ask children to provide personal information without first gaining parental approval; to do so is now a violation of federal law, thanks to the Children’s Online Pri- vacy Protection Act, which took effect in April of 2000.

Despite the growing importance of the Internet, television remains 10 the primary medium for children’s advertising. The effects of these TV ads have long been a subject of controversy. In 1978, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) tried to ban all television ads directed at children seven years old or younger. Many studies had found that young children often could not tell the difference between television programming and televi- sion advertising. They also could not comprehend the real purpose of com- mercials and trusted that advertising claims were true. Michael Pertschuk, the head of the FTC, argued that children need to be shielded from adver- tising that preys upon their immaturity. “They cannot protect themselves,”
he said, “against adults who exploit their present-mindedness.”19

The FTC’s proposed ban was supported by the American Academy of 11 Pediatrics, the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, the Consumers Union, and the Child Welfare League, among others. But it was attacked
by the National Association of Broadcasters, the Toy Manufacturers of America, and the Association of National Advertisers. The industry groups lobbied Congress to prevent any restrictions on children’s ads and sued in federal court to block Pertschuk from participating in future FTC meet- ings on the subject. In April of 1981, three months after the inauguration

of President Ronald Reagan, an FTC staff report argued that a ban on ads aimed at children would be impractical, effectively killing the proposal. “We are delighted by the FTC’s reasonable recommendation,” said the head of the National Association of Broadcasters.20

The Saturday-morning children’s ads that caused angry debates twenty 12 years ago now seem almost quaint. Far from being banned, TV advertising aimed at kids is now broadcast twenty-four hours a day, closed-captioned and in stereo. Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, the Cartoon Network, and the other children’s cable networks are now responsible for about 80 percent of all television viewing by kids.21 None of these networks existed before 1979. The typical American child now spends about twenty-one hours a week watching television—roughly one and a half months of TV

18See Matthew McAllester, “Life in Cyberspace: What’s McDonald’s Doing with Kids’ E-mail Responses?” Newsday, July 20, 1997.

19Quoted in Linda E. Demkovich, “Pulling the Sweet Tooth of Children’s TV Adver- tising,” National Journal, January 7, 1978.

20Quoted in A. O. Sulzberger, Jr., “FTC Staff Urges End to Child-TV Ad Study,” New York Times, April 3, 1981.

21Cited in Steve McClellan and Richard Tedesco, “Children’s TV Market May Be Played Out,” Broadcasting & Cable, March 1, 1999.

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every year.22 That does not include the time children spend in front of a screen watching videos, playing video games, or using the computer. Out- side of school, the typical American child spends more time watching tele- vision than doing any other activity except sleeping.23 During the course of a year, he or she watches more than thirty thousand TV commercials.24 Even the nation’s youngest children are watching a great deal of television. About one-quarter of American children between the ages of two and five have a TV in their room.25

Perfect Synergy

Although the fast food chains annually spend about $3 billion on televi- 13 sion advertising, their marketing efforts directed at children extend far beyond such conventional ads.26 The McDonald’s Corporation now oper- ates more than eight thousand playgrounds at its restaurants in the United States.27 Burger King has more than two thousand.28 A manufacturer of “playlands” explains why fast food operators build these largely plastic structures: “Playlands bring in children, who bring in parents, who bring

in money.”29 As American cities and towns spend less money on children’s recreation, fast food restaurants have become gathering spaces for fami- lies with young children. Every month about 90 percent of American chil- dren between the ages of three and nine visit a McDonald’s.30 The seesaws, slides, and pits full of plastic balls have proven to be an effective lure. “But when it gets down to brass tacks,” a Brandweek article on fast food notes, “the key to attracting kids is toys, toys, toys.”31

The fast food industry has forged promotional links with the nation’s 14 leading toy manufacturers, giving away simple toys with children’s meals and selling more elaborate ones at a discount. The major toy crazes of recent years — including Pokémon cards, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Tamogotchis — have been abetted by fast food promotions. A successful promotion easily

22Cited in “Policy Statement: Media Education,” American Academy of Pediatrics, August 1999.

23Cited in “Policy Statement: Children, Adolescents, and Television,” American Academy of Pediatrics, October 1995.

24Cited in Mary C. Martin, “Children’s Understanding of the Intent of Advertising: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Fall 1997.

25Cited in Lisa Jennings, “Baby, Hand Me the Remote,” Scripps Howard News Ser- vice, October 13, 1999.

26Interview with Lynn Fava, Competitive Media Reporting.

27Cited in “Fast Food and Playgrounds: A Natural Combination,” promotional mate- rial, Playlandservices, Inc.

30Cited in Rod Taylor, “The Beanie Factor,” Brandweek, June 16, 1997.
31Sam Bradley and Betsey Spethmann, “Subway’s Kid Pack: The Ties That Sell,”

Brandweek, October 10, 1994.


doubles or triples the weekly sales volume of children’s meals. The chains often distribute numerous versions of a toy, encouraging repeat visits by small children and adult collectors who hope to obtain complete sets. In 1999 McDonald’s distributed eighty different types of Furby. According to a publication called Tomart’s Price Guide to McDonald’s Happy Meal Col- lectibles, some fast food giveaways are now worth hundreds of dollars.32

Rod Taylor, a Brandweek columnist, called McDonald’s 1997 Teenie 15 Beanie Baby giveaway one of the most successful promotions in the his- tory of American advertising.33 At the time McDonald’s sold about 10 mil- lion Happy Meals in a typical week. Over the course of ten days in April

of 1997, by including a Teenie Beanie Baby with each purchase, McDon- ald’s sold about 100 million Happy Meals. Rarely has a marketing effort achieved such an extraordinary rate of sales among its intended consum- ers. Happy Meals are marketed to children between the ages of three and nine; within ten days about four Teenie Beanie Baby Happy Meals were sold for every American child in that age group. Not all of those Happy Meals were purchased for children. Many adult collectors bought Teenie Beanie Baby Happy Meals, kept the dolls, and threw away the food.

The competition for young customers has led the fast food chains to 16 form marketing alliances not just with toy companies, but with sports leagues and Hollywood studios. McDonald’s has staged promotions with the National Basketball Association and the Olympics. Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC signed a three-year deal with the NCAA. Wendy’s has linked with the National Hockey League. Burger King and Nickelodeon, Denny’s and Major League Baseball, McDonald’s and the Fox Kids Network have all formed partnerships that mix advertisements for fast food with children’s entertainment. Burger King has sold chicken nuggets shaped like Teletub- bies. McDonald’s now has its own line of children’s videos starring Ronald McDonald. The Wacky Adventures of Ronald McDonald is being produced

by Klasky-Csupo, the company that makes Rugrats and The Simpsons. The videos feature the McDonaldland characters and sell for $3.49. “We see this as a great opportunity,” a McDonald’s executive said in a press release, “to create a more meaningful relationship between Ronald and kids.”34

All of these cross-promotions have strengthened the ties between Hol- 17 lywood and the fast food industry. In the past few years, the major studios have started to recruit fast food executives. Susan Frank, a former director
of national marketing for McDonald’s, later became a marketing execu- tive at the Fox Kids Network. She now runs a new family-oriented cable

32Meredith Williams, Tomart’s Price Guide to McDonald’s Happy Meal Collectibles (Dayton, Ohio: Tomart Publications, 1995).

33The story of McDonald’s Teenie Beanie Baby promotion can be found in Taylor, “The Beanie Factor.”

34Quoted in “McDonald’s Launches Second Animated Video in Series Starring Ronald McDonald,” press release, McDonald’s Corporation, January 21, 1999.

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network jointly owned by Hallmark Entertainment and the Jim Henson Company, creator of the Muppets. Ken Snelgrove, who for many years worked as a marketer for Burger King and McDonald’s, now works at MGM. Brad Ball, a former senior vice president of marketing at McDon- ald’s, is now the head of marketing for Warner Brothers. Not long after being hired, Ball told the Hollywood Reporter that there was little differ- ence between selling films and selling hamburgers.35 John Cywinski, the former head of marketing at Burger King, became the head of market- ing for Walt Disney’s film division in 1996, then left the job to work for McDonald’s. Forty years after Bozo’s first promotional appearance at a McDonald’s, amid all the marketing deals, giveaways, and executive swaps, America’s fast food culture has become indistinguishable from the popular culture of its children.

In May of 1996, the Walt Disney Company signed a ten-year global 18 marketing agreement with the McDonald’s Corporation. By linking with
a fast food company, a Hollywood studio typically gains anywhere from $25 million to $45 million in additional advertising for a film, often dou- bling its ad budget. These licensing deals are usually negotiated on a per- film basis; the 1996 agreement with Disney gave McDonald’s exclusive rights to that studio’s output of films and videos. Some industry observers thought Disney benefited more from the deal, gaining a steady source of marketing funds.36 According to the terms of the agreement, Disney char- acters could never be depicted sitting in a McDonald’s restaurant or eating any of the chain’s food. In the early 1980s, the McDonald’s Corporation had turned away offers to buy Disney; a decade later, McDonald’s execu- tives sounded a bit defensive about having given Disney greater control over how their joint promotions would be run.37 “A lot of people can’t get used to the fact that two big global brands with this kind of credibility can forge this kind of working relationship,” a McDonald’s executive told
a reporter. “It’s about their theme parks, their next movie, their characters, their videos. . . . It’s bigger than a hamburger. It’s about the integration of our two brands, long-term.”38

The life’s work of Walt Disney and Ray Kroc had come full-circle, unit- 19 ing in perfect synergy. McDonald’s began to sell its hamburgers and french fries at Disney’s theme parks. The ethos of McDonaldland and of Disney- land, never far apart, have finally become one. Now you can buy a Happy Meal at the Happiest Place on Earth.

35See T. L. Stanley, Hollywood Reporter, May 26, 1998.

36See Thomas R. King, “Mickey May Be the Big Winner in Disney-McDonald’s Alli- ance,” Wall Street Journal, May 24, 1996.

37See Monci Jo Williams, “McDonald’s Refuses to Plateau,” Fortune, November 12, 1984.

38Quoted in James Bates, “You Want First-Run Features with Those Fries?” News- day, May 11, 1997.