A book or a toy. That’s the option South African children now get when their parents pay for a Happy Meal at a McDonald’s store. But this is yet another form of advertising to children, according to public health experts and civil society.

“The promotion is the meal, [offering a book] is still a mechanism, although slightly different, to get children or their parents to buy the meal. It’s great that it’s a book, but it’s still buying the energy-dense meal,” UNICEF Nutrition Specialist Dr Alison Feeley explains.

South Africans’ love of food high in sugar, salt and fat is driving an epidemic of obesity and illnesses, and children are extremely vulnerable to advertisements promoting fast food.

Between 1994 and 2004, the rate of overweight primary school children jumped from 1.2% to 13% and in obesity from 0.2% to 3.3%, according to research.

“Children are repeatedly exposed to marketing that portrays unhealthy food as fun, cool, exciting and positive. This ties in with using popular toys and movies in promotional packaging and even to in-school marketing,” says Professor Karen Hofman, head of Wits School of Public Health’s research unit PRICELESS SA (Priority Cost Effective Lessons for System Strengthening South Africa).

The effects of advertising are pretty clear – if you incentivise somebody to buy a product, they’ll buy and consume it

“A study we ran in Soweto found that 50% of schools had Coca-Cola signs in their grounds – and this was five years after they said, ‘We are no longer marketing to children’.”

Feeley says that adults only need to eat one fast food meal a week to increase their body mass index over a period of time.

The McDonald’s campaign, called Happy Meal Readers, gives customers the option to choose between the traditional toy or one of 12 story books written by acclaimed author and illustrator Cressida Cowell. The South African leg of the book programme kicked off in March with a star-studded launch in Sandton City — including celebrities such as Gail Mabalane, Unathi Nkayi and renowned storyteller Gcina Mhlope being in attendance.

The campaign was first launched in Sweden in 2011. According to a media statement from McDonald’s South Africa, the franchise has distributed close to 450 million books globally through this campaign. That means 450 million Happy Meals have been sold to children worldwide.

South Africa’s self-regulated advertising industry

There is currently no legislation prohibiting advertising to children in South Africa except in the case of breast milk substitutes and complementary foods that the government has prohibited from being marketed to children under the age of three years. This is also in line with World Health Organisation guidelines.

“The effects of advertising are pretty clear – if you incentivise somebody to buy a product, they’ll buy and consume it,” Feeley says.

The South African advertising industry uses a self-regulation system, governed by the independent Advertising Regulatory Board and its code of conduct which states that advertisements shouldn’t mentally, physically or emotionally harm children in any way. Advertisements, the code instructs, should also refrain from exploiting children’s lack of experience and gullibility, and should “not strain their sense of loyalty”.

The Advertising Regulatory Board guidelines also state that advertisements for food and beverage products shouldn’t directly appeal to children 12 years and younger, persuade their parents or others to buy advertised products for them or suggest any negative consequences of not purchasing the product.

Happy Meals appeal to parents and children’

According to the latest figures from the World Action on Salt and Health, one McDonald’s South Africa Hamburger Happy Meal that comes with small fries has 0.91 grams of salt and 698 calories, while a Chicken Burger Happy Meal has 0.85 grams and 712 calories. This is lower than in other countries because of South Africa’s salt content targets introduced by the Department of Health. For instance, a McDonald’s Cheeseburger Happy Meal sold in Spain has three times the salt (3.6 grams of salt per portion) than the same meal sold in South Africa with just 1.08 grams of salt.

One of the meals from McDonald’s South Africa, accompanied by a book. (Health-e News)