Today marketers can reach everyone, but especially children and teens, at any time and any place through any number of ever proliferating mobile devices that are hitting the market.  Minority teens especially are more likely to have mobile phones and use them to get online than their white counterparts—making their phones a critical and often only access point to the Internet.  Marketers know this and understand that if they can reach them on their mobile phones then they have a captive audience for their campaigns.  Given this, it is clear that by offering free Wi-Fi to students in poorer communities, McDonald’s is not just serving up an Internet connection but implementing an ingenious strategy to further secure their dominance in the fast food industry—both online and offline.  

McDonald’s—who was a leading mobile advertiser in 2012 according to Mobile Marketer— is already a commercial playground in the online world with and which it uses to serve advertising disguised as games to influence the food preferences of children and drive their consumption.  

McDonald’s also uses online data about their users to engage in more effective digital marketing.  This takes advantage of each person’s unique preferences and vulnerabilities to drive a sale.  Furthermore, McDonald’s uses geo-location data to reach customers with real-time ads delivered to their phones in order to drive them to their stores.  

By developing a Wi-Fi space that brings their online power into the offline arena, McDonald’s has created a more effective 360-degree advertising environment where students will be bombarded with advertising not only in the store but on their mobile phones and laptops. 

While we understand the importance of Internet access for students in the 21st Century we must ask at what cost?  Must we put the health of these students at risk by further exposing them to food that has been linked to America’s current youth obesity crisis?  McDonald’s new digital Trojan horse in the form of free Wi-Fi to students takes advantage of the fact that some communities have very few options when it comes to access to the internet.  This offering will help McDonald’s to track and target them better with advertising.  Is this the price students must pay with their health in order to get access to the Internet?   Surely we can do better.  

Joy Spencer is currently Project Director of the Digital Food Marketing and Youth Initiative at the Center for Digital Democracy highlighting the impact of targeted digital food marketing on the privacy rights and nutritional food choices of youth.


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