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In Defense of the Happy Meal

June 28, 2010

Photo credit: From Noodlepie under a Creative Commons license via Flickr. The view of this blog post do not necessarily represent that of the photographer.

This article originally appeared on the Forbes.com CSR blog. Click here to read the original.

This week, a consumer interest group announced its intention to bring the very important social issue of childhood obesity to court. The Center for Science in the Public Interest announced it will sue McDonald’s for the chain’s promotion of Happy Meals. CSPI says the toys that come with the meals encourage children and parents to make unhealthy choices.

“McDonald’s is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children,” CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner said on the organization’s web site. “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. It’s a creepy and predatory practice that warrants an injunction.”

Yikes.

Ignoring the hyperbole and emotional manipulation, Mr. Gardner and his organization miss several points:

  • THINGS HAVE CHANGED. Over the past decade or so, McDonald’s has changed, dramatically, its business operations to address the burgeoning consumer interest in sustainability and wellness.  Personally speaking, I used to be very critical of the fast-food giant and even boycotted the company for 18 months after reading the critical book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. While far from perfect, McDonald’s has changed its operations and is now one of the leading companies in sustainability, wellness, and active lifestyle education.
  • CHILDREN & PARENTS ARE NOT DRONES. CSPI has claimed that the company’s marketing “has the effect of conscripting America’s children into an unpaid drone army of word-of-mouth-marketers, causing them to pester their parents to bring them to McDonald’s.” When I was a child, there were very few – if any – healthy options available at McDonald’s. Yes, getting a toy influenced my decision whether to get a Happy Meal (always) or just the ordinary meal without the toy (never). But my parents had veto power.  Parents still do.
  • MORE CHOICES THAN EVER. CSPI claims that of all the 24 possible Happy Meal combinations, all exceed 430 calories (which is one-third of the recommended 1,300-calorie intake). The organization says that a combination of a “cheeseburger, French fries, and Sprite has half a day’s calories and saturated fat (640 and 7 grams, respectively), about 940 milligrams of sodium, and about two days’ worth of sugar (35 grams).” This ignores the fact that there are options other than French fries (apples) and sugar-laden soda (low-fat milk).  Parents can still “give in” to their children’s desire to get the latest Happy Meal toy and select healthier options.
  • DISSONANCE WITH DECEPTIVE ADVERTISING. The allegations claim that the marketing practices are deceptive. But McDonald’s isn’t advertising that if you buy a Happy Meal with a toy, your children will be skinny. In my mind, a deceptive advertising campaign would try to convince me that a daily Big Mac will make me look like Brad Pitt. McDonald’s is doing no such thing.
  • LET’S BE HONEST ABOUT THE TOYS. Yes, some children get really excited about the Happy Meal toys. I remember my cousins having quite the collection.  But eventually, everyone comes to the realization that the toys are… well… kind of disappointing and cheap. It only takes a child a few years to recognize this, not a lifetime.
  • THE ANSWER TO THE OBESITY PROBLEM LIES ELSEWHERE. Life is about choices. Information is now readily available to anyone who needs it, about the food that they purchase at any major restaurant chain. McDonald’s is no exception and, I believe, exceptional in that they have gone above and beyond to educate their consumers about healthy choices. There are many, many other variables in the obesity problem – such as school funding for physical education and recess.  Children, as well as adults, need to be taught how to make the right choices. McDonald’s is doing its part, but it cannot be held responsible for the decisions that are made outside of its restaurants.
  • CONSUMERS DRIVE CHANGE, NOT COMPANIES. The consumer culture from the post-World War II era up until the new millennium was all about making decisions based on factors that dealt with speed and price. There is a shift in consumer interest in more healthful and sustainable choices – witness the growth of organic food within the past decade- and food providers are responding – perhaps too slowly – to that shift. Having been “on the inside” of a FORTUNE 500 company, I can attest that nothing changes a company’s operations more than what the customers want. Nothing. Not a lawsuit, not a shareholder resolution proposal – at any company worth its, ahem, salt, it is all about the consumer’s interest.

Maybe McDonald’s could move faster to use its market-shifting muscles to serve as a catalyst for this change. But that’s a different debate and not what this lawsuit is about. Rather than try to engage consumers and McDonald’s  in stronger activism, CPSI relied on the trick of first resort for many NGOs: a scary and headline-grabbing approach anchored by legal threats.  To be clear, I am not one to shy away from suing governments, individuals, and companies to stand up for what is right. However, I get disappointed when any organization seeks to create social change by “suing first and asking questions later.”  I would have preferred if CPSI outlined whether and if they had tried to engage with McDonald’s in a meaningful dialogue first, before they tried to make headlines.

Disclosure: the writer is a shareholder of McDonald’s, but believes his opinion would be the same regardless of his ownership status.

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The writer is president of Do Well Do Good, LLC.

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