Hungry Jack's, McDonald's apps using 'casino' tactics may encourage unhealthy habits, expert says

ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Hungry Jack's, McDonald's apps using 'casino' tactics may encourage unhealthy habits, expert says
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Bright lights, vibrating machines, and spinning jackpots — this could be the gaming floor of a casino, but they are also the mechanics of a fast-food app which asks people to shake their phones to win prizes.

  • Experts warn fast-food companies are copying methods used in casinos to keep people's attention 
  • Addiction lecturer Stephen Bright says some apps have the same bells and whistles as poker machines 
  • Dr Bright says there needs to be a discussion about tighter government regulation of apps with gambling functions

Experts warn that companies and app developers have lifted gambling tactics from slot machines to mimic random intermittent reinforcement.

It is a psychological term that explains why some people get hooked on an activity or game, and it is becoming more prevalent in the world of tech.

Stephen Bright, a psychologist and senior lecturer of addiction at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia, said there needed to be more government regulation of apps that used gambling techniques.

Dr Bright said about 70 years ago, there were famous experiments where scientists trained rats to tap a lever to get a pellet of food.

He said some rats were set in a group where they received one pellet each time they pressed the lever, while others would only get a pellet randomly when hitting the button.

Once the pellet delivery was blocked, the rats which were administered the pellets more randomly took longer to stop engaging in the activity. 

Dr Bright said that experiment explained why people could become addicted to apps such as the Hungry Jack's Shake & Win game.

People can download the app and shake their device to score a free menu item or special deal.

They can choose to redeem their prize or shake again.

If they shake again, they risk getting a deal of lesser value and cannot receive their original offer.

If they choose to accept the offer, they then have 30 minutes to head to a participating store and collect their prize.

"These sorts of apps work on the random intermittent schedule," he said.

'Triggered' to keep using app

Dr Bright said there were similarities between these apps and poker machines.

"They're trying to provide lots of sensory input through the vibration of the phone, the noises it makes, so you're triggered to go back into the app," he said.

"The use of that is similar to the way poker machines are set up, where people don't know when they're going to win next.

"The pokies use lots of bells and whistles … and it sounds like the app is also trying to leverage that."

McDonald's offers a similar scheme through Macca's Monopoly where people can peel stickers off food items to win prizes — which links back into the organisation's app for prize redemption.

Calls for government regulation

Dr Bright said fast-food companies were not the only industries using gambling methods for promotional purposes.

He said there was a broader discussion needed on the accessibility of apps — as children could often download them and bypass the age question.

"We don't really have any regulation over how these apps are built, what features they can contain and how much they can leverage about what we know about psychology to hold a person's attention," he said.

"There must be ways of regulating these sorts of technologies around age limits."

Dr Bright also said being bombarded by emails from fast-food companies could encourage unhealthy habits.

"You're getting a stimulus that could trigger you to go back in and use the app," he said.

A Hungry Jack's spokesperson said the game was a "fun way" for customers to access special deals.

The spokesperson said those over 18 or over 14 with parent approval could use the app.

"Customers can opt out of the app easily online and can unsubscribe from notifications at any time," the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, a McDonald's Australia spokesperson said the company took its responsibility as an advertiser seriously while adhering to guidelines set out by the Australian Association of National Advertisers and relevant gaming authorities.

"The game is open to people aged 15 years, and over, and anyone under the age of 18 needs parental consent to enter and redeem prizes, as outlined in the terms and conditions," the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said the Monopoly promotion only ran for about six weeks, and healthy items, such as salads and apple slices, were also included in the campaign.  

Western Australia's Minister for Information and Communications Technology Stephen Dawson was asked whether there needed to be greater regulation in the tech space to address gambling concerns held by experts, but his spokesperson said the questions were better directed at federal Communications Minister Michelle Rowland. 

Ms Rowland has been contacted for comment.

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