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Is a McDonald's Happy Meal still a Happy Meal if there's no toy inside?
If a consumer group with a history of going after food makers who advertise to kids has its way, we might find out.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest declared today it would sue McDonald's if it doesn't stop marketing its wares with toys to young children.
"Not only does the practice mobilize 'pester power,' but it also imprints on developing minds brand loyalty for McDonald's," the group's letter to McDonald's says.
And those aren't happy results for kids, CSPI says. "Because most of the company's options (for young children and others) are of poor nutritional quality, eating Happy Meals promotes eating habits that are virtually assured to undermine children's health," the letter says.
In other words, they're making our kids bug us to go there through toy tie-ins to the latest movies, and then they're hooking them on food that's high in fat, salt, sugar and calories.
The latest movie marketing gambit -- tied to the movie Shrek Forever After -- was tarnished by a recall of about 12 million glasses over potential health risks from cadmium. But McDonald's says the Shrek-themed Happy Meals aim to foster healthier eating, with choices that include fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy products.
And there's growing evidence that characters used in marketing strongly affects childrens' food preferences.
But some people say CSPI, a.k.a the "Food Police" is going too far, and taking away the role of parents.
When Santa Clara County, Calif., passed a first-of-its-kind ordinance in April, banning toys in fast food meals that are high in calories, Supervisor Donald Gage voted against it.
"If you can't control a 3-year-old child for a toy, God save you when they get to be teenagers," Gage told the Los Angeles Times.
For its part, McDonald's points out that it has added healthier options to its burgers and fries-dominated menu, including salads for grown ups and apple slices for kids.
But while McDonald's website lists 24 different Happy Meal combinations, CSPI notes that all of them exceed the target of a 430 calorie lunch for kids aged 4 to 8. And in a small study the group conducted, French fries were the default side dish for a Happy Meal 93 percent of the time.
By the way, if you go McDonald's dedicated Happy Meal website, there's a fine-print disclaimer near the top of the landing page that reads: "Hey kids, this is advertising."
Update: In a statement, McDonald's said it "couldn't disagree more with the misrepresentation of our food and marketing practices by the Center for Science in the Public Interest." The company affirmed its pride in Happy Meals and said, "Getting a toy is just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald's."