McDonald's May Be Sued by Nutrition Watchdog Over Happy Meal Toys

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A controversial meal. [Flickr: happymealy]

When I was little, my toy bins were full of tiny, vibrantly colored Happy Meal toys. I would play with them and carry them around, at least until they inevitably broke or hid permanently behind the couch. Though it's been quite a while since my last Happy Meal, McDonald's still uses this promotional mechanism to advertise new movies, TV shows, or brands to millions of eager young eyes across the country.

But the Center for Science in the Public Interest is not buying it.

In light of heightened and serious concerns about national childhood obesity levels, the CSPI has said that they will sue the mega-corporation if it does not stop using toys as a marketing tool targeting young consumers. The Center's litigation director, Stephen Gardner, summed up their concerns as such:

"McDonald's use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits young children's developmental immaturity—all this to induce children to prefer foods that may harm their health."

Those are some strong words. Let's look a little closer.

Fast food chains have long struggled with attacks on their child-targeted meals, with many studies and agencies claiming that the meals are just too high in calories, sodium, and trans-fats to be healthy for such young bodies. The CSPI is concerned with the nutritional quality of the food, as well as the impact that advertising has on the child. Studies have already shown that children prefer the taste of foods that are promoted through use of cartoon characters or other media images. But food advertised as such is not necessarily the most nutritious—in fact, the opposite is often true. But this advertising effect is seen in the continued popularity of the Happy Meal, surely augmented by the use of toys and promotional items in the tasty-smelling paper bag.

McDonald's counters CSPI's claims by saying that it has made efforts to reverse this effect, and to encourage children to consume the healthier items from its menu. Indeed, the chain's most recent promotion, for Shrek Forever After, used the movie's cartoon characters to advertise foods like apple slices, low-fat milk, and fruit juices.

But the CSPI claims this is not enough. Even when lower-calorie options are highlighted on the menu, fries are still ordered in Happy Meals 94% of the time. A success rate of 6% has not convinced the agency that McDonald's is doing its part to stem childhood obesity.

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A throw-back Happy Meal box, from 1986. [Photograph: tOkKa on Flickr]

It seems that most troubling aspect to the CSPI is what they view as the manipulative quality of Happy Meals. That is to say, the Meals profit by advertising to children who don't yet understand the power of marketing or the nutritional lacking of some of the most tempting food on the menu. And parents struggle as well—it is much harder to convince your child to stay away from a cheeseburger and fries, if a likeness of their favorite TV character is being served up on the side.

As a point of interest, Santa Clara County in California is a step ahead on this issue—they passed an outright ban on selling toys in Happy Meals in parts of the county, unless chains could improve the nutritional standards of the meals. Understandably, this ban raised many questions about the role of government in parental choice, corporate behavior, and individual consumption habits. The ban has not quite gone into effect (there was a buffer time to allow chains to craft new menus), but it will be interesting to see how their efforts play out.

Almost exactly one year ago (a year ago yesterday to be exact!) we engaged in a discussion of whether or not toys should be offered in Happy Meals. Now, we are in a different nutritional climate and facing some serious health questions.

What do you think of these updates? Has your opinion changed?

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