Burger King takes the moral high ground, stops offering toys in meals and advertising to kids

Burger King has cut toys from its kids’ meal options and stopped television advertising of its kids’ meals, and it says it’s the first burger chain in New Zealand to do so. 

CEO of Burger King New Zealand, John Hunter, said in a statement the company feels it’s no longer relevant to include and advertise plastic toys as part of kids’ meals.

“We decided some time ago to re-evaluate how we present our kids meals, and as part of our ongoing commitment to Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) children’s code for advertising food, the decision was made to drop toys altogether,” Hunter says.

The step is also part of an ongoing initiative to encourage customers to make healthier food choices.

It follows last year’s move of displaying energy content of food on its menus in store.

Managing director of marketing services company Goodsense, Kath Dewar, says that though Colmar Brunton research shows 90 percent of New Zealanders want to buy ethically and socially responsible products, only 47 percent can name a company leader in that space.

“We [New Zealanders] give companies the benefit of the doubt until an issue emerges,” she says. “Cadbury assumed they were doing the right thing with palm oil until people were forced to confront the impact the brand had, and then Whittaker’s jumped in and took the moral high ground.”

She says an issue has emerged around the wastefulness, diet-related and social concerns of using plastic kids’ toys for retail promotions, so it’s an opportunity for Burger King to lead the way.

“From a brand positioning perspective, it’s opened up interesting possibilities for Burger King to take more of a market leader position by being the first to take the high ground,” she says.

Countdown’s Dreamworks character cards and Super Animals, New World’s Little Shop miniature grocery items and Z Energy’s Blokhedz superhero campaigns were all a runaway success (Countdown also found success with more grown-up collectables campaigns involving knives and Jamie Oliver crockery). However, these campaigns weren’t without their detractors, who pointed out the environmental and social concerns of the freebie frenzy. 

Parents vented on social media about the toys being so sought after by their kids they were being pestered by their children to spend more money.

In the UK, research has found parents spend $NZ3.82 billion (£2 billion) on things they don’t need as a result of “pester power” by their children. 

Pester power, Dewar says, is when a promotion is run in a certain way so that kids will respond to it and strongly encourage their parents to buy the promoted product.

Encouraging children to urge their parents to buy a product is against the New Zealand ASA’s advertising to children code.

The other issue with the toys is longevity, Dewar says.

When cleaning out a toy collection, cheap plastic toys that came from a happy meal or a supermarket giveaway aren’t going to be seen as high on the priority list to keep and will inevitably be sent to the landfill.

But if your moral compass is askew and you only measure success by the profit, does it matter?

“There’s big questions about it, like when do we sacrifice traditionally successful promotional activity?” Dewar says.

However, she thinks taking the moral high ground builds a long-term relationship with the customer. And research shows companies that back purpose over profit end up being more profitable in the end. 

Even if companies don’t care, customers do, as shown by the 90 percent of those surveyed by Colmar Brunton wanting to buy products that avoid damaging people or nature. Of course, there is a big difference between what people say and what they do and price often plays a big role in purchase decisions, something Ecostore’s Malcolm Rands knows all too well. 

“People want to buy from the good guys, so there’s a massive opportunity for brands and retailers to become the good guy and still make a profit.”

The smartest companies globally are doing it, Dewar says, like in the UK, where supermarket chains compete to see who can reduce the most in-house food waste.

Toy giant Lego also ended their 50-year toy promotion with petrol station Shell last year after environmental protests about its Artic drilling plans.

“There’s great proven case studies to follow, it’s not like its scary new territory. There is really well trodden paths to start to follow to grasp these issues,” she says. 

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