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Dangle a toy in front of a child’s eyes, and you can bet the child will do just about anything to get it.  And that’s exactly what McDonald’s (and other restaurants) do, using everything from TV commercials to signs in windows to the Internet in order to get kids to pester their parents to take them to the restaurant.

It used to be that parents warned kids to run away from strangers offering candy, but companies have made an end run by laundering their perfidy through electronic media.  Now kids absorb countless commercials touting premiums based on their favorite characters—Shrek, Batman, Barbie, Beanie Babies, et cetera—and, surprise, surprise, ask their parents to take them to McDonald’s.  Consumer-marketing guru Adam Hanft said, “Happy Meals proved that you could actually ‘brand’ a meal and make children harass their parents for it.”

The Federal Trade Commission has reported that fast-food companies—with McDonald’s by far in the lead—spent $360 million in 2006 on toys to market children’s meals.  In the same year, fast food restaurants sold more than 1.2 billion children’s meals with toys to children ages 12 and under, accounting for 20 percent of all child traffic at those restaurants.  It should be no surprise that companies employ the practice—it works. 

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has long opposed the deceptive marketing of unhealthy foods to children.  That’s why in 1978 we petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to set limits on the nutritional quality of foods marketed to kids.

In 1978 America was at the brink of the obesity epidemic that has seen rates of overweight and obesity in children triple.  Factors ranging from video games to less PE in schools contributed to the epidemic, but one indisputable, major factor is the increased ubiquity of inexpensive, high-calorie foods. 

McDonald’s is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, marketers of food to children.  According to the Associated Press, in 2003 sales of Happy Meals amounted to $3.4 billion and made up about 20 percent of McDonald’s overall sales.  McDonald’s has pledged to advertise only those child-oriented Happy Meals that meet its nutrition standards, but that pledge fails to address the insidious use of toys.

Restaurant meals that include toys are coming under increasing attack.  In March 2008 Consumers International, a global alliance of 220 organizations, and the International Obesity Task Force called for bans on the “inclusion of free gifts, toys or collectable items, which appeal to children to promote unhealthy foods.”  Months later, the city council of Liverpool, England, considered such a ban.  One council member charged that, “By offering these toys, they are preying on the needs and desires of children in order to cash-in on the sale of junk food.”  And recently, Santa Clara County, California, became the first jurisdiction to ban the inclusion of toys in unhealthy restaurant meals.

This week, CSPI has upped the ante by threatening to sue McDonald’s unless the company agrees to stop using toys to beguile young children.  CSPI contends that tempting-kids-with-toys is unfair and deceptive—both to kids who don’t understand the concept of marketing and to parents who have to put up with their pestering offspring.

Adding to the perniciousness of tempting kids with toys is the use of promotions that have kids coming back to “collect them all.”  Most notable in that category was McDonald’s offering of 101 different dogs in a promotion linked to the movie “101 Dalmatians.” 

To make matters worse, the nutritional quality of Happy Meals ranges from mediocre to miserable.  Notwithstanding all of McDonald’s protestations that its products are healthful, every single one of the 24 Happy Meal configurations on McDonald’s Web site is not what the doctor ordered.  Every meal is too high in calories—that is, it provides more than a third of an average child’s recommended 1,300 calories per day, with the most caloric meals providing half the calories.   Meals that include soft drinks both accustom kids to drinking soft drinks with their meals and provide about twice as much sugar as the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that kids consume in a whole day.  And Happy Meals with cheeseburgers provide about three-fourths of a day’s worth of sodium, which can increase blood pressure even in young children. 

Furthermore, in a survey of 44 McDonald’s outlets around the country, we found that the default side item in Happy Meals was usually French fries, not the healthier Apple Dippers.  That is, in response to a customer’s request for a hamburger Happy Meal, over 90 percent of the clerks did not ask which side dish the customer wanted, but automatically provided fries.

McDonald’s former Chief Marketing Officer Mary Dillon said that their clever advertising “shows that something like a Happy Meal at McDonald’s can make everything better.”  “Everything,” though, should not be construed to include the child’s health.

But concern about the marketing of Happy Meals goes beyond nutrition.  The very practice of using toys to get kids to pester their parents to buy a food—junky or nutritious—is unconscionable.  Listen to how marketing experts view marketing to kids.

A General Mills official explained his company’s philosophy: “When it comes to targeting kid consumers, we....believe in getting them early and having them for life.”

Lucy Hughes, of Initiative Media World Wide and author of the Nag Factor study, said: “It’s a game.  If we could develop a creative … 30-second commercial that encourages the child to whine or show some sort of importance in it that the child understands and is able to reiterate to the parents, then we’re successful.”
However, Michael Brody, a psychiatrist who chairs the television and media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, has no tolerance for those predatory marketing practices: “These marketers are very similar to pedophiles.  They are child experts.  If you’re going to be a pedophile or a child marketer, you have to know about children, and what children are going to want.”

McDonald’s claims to be “proud of our long heritage of responsible communication with our customers, especially children.”  And its Happy Meals Web site says: “You want the very best for your kids, and so do we.”  That’s McNonsense.  McDonald’s wants your money—and it’ll manipulate your kids any which way to get it.

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