Posts Tagged ‘Happy Meals’

The Happy Meal of Our Discontent

February 3, 2011

This is precisely the sort of thing McDonald’s and, by extension, various other fast food chains had hoped to avoid. Legislation proposed in Nebraska seeks to ban the use of toys to promote unhealthy foods to children.

Introduced in January by Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, LB 126 “would prohibit toy giveaways in children’s meals that have more than 500 calories or in the case of breakfast meals, 400 calories,” according to a story from the Associated Press. “Meals with toys also could not have more than 640 milligrams of sodium and must contain at least one cup of fruit or non-fried vegetables.”

Similar legislation has all ready passed in two California communities: San Francisco and Santa Clara County, which was the first to pass such a law. Whether the Nebraska legislation passes or not, the fact that legislation like this is now making its way from the Left Coast to the Heartland is exactly what companies like McDonald’s have hoped to avoid.  Back in October, 2010, a fair amount of media attention was focused on San Francisco’s ultimately successful efforts to place restrictions on the use of toys to promote fast-food to kids.

“The big surprise today was that the San Francisco supervisors have taken the ‘happy’ out of Happy Meals,” one McDonald’s franchise owner told Food Safety News on the day the city’s Board of Supervisors voted 8 to 3 for the legislation. The issue drew jokes and criticism from all over, especially those decrying what they said was an infringement on the rights of parents.

McDonald’s, clearly unhappy with a second successful effort to curb what has been a massively successful ad campaign as well as a threatened lawsuit by Center for Science in the Public Interest,  issued a statement describing how proud the company is of the quality of its Happy Meals:

We listen to our customers, and parents consistently tell us they approve of our Happy Meals.   We are confident that parents understand and appreciate that Happy Meals are a fun treat, with quality, right-sized food choices for their children that can fit into a balanced diet.

That’s fine and there should be no debate about parents’ decisions concerning which foods they feel are appropriate for their kids. That misses the point, however. The argument isn’t about whether parents should take their kids to McDonald’s; the debate is over how McDonald’s presents itself to a potentially lucrative demographic incapable of making sensible decisions about its diet, namely, children.

The bill, Avery told the AP, is about restricting how corporations “push their least nutritional . . . food products on our children.”

Toys aren’t aimed at parents. They’re aimed at kids who are rarely paragons of rational thought. They’re intended to convince the child she should want a Happy Meal and, clearly, they’ve been an incredibly successful draw. McDonald’s understands the importance of building brand loyalty very early on and it’s this kind of legislation in places like San Francisco and, now, Nebraska, that presents such a challenge to their way of doing business.

Will the bill in Nebraska go anywhere? Most people would place their bet on the bill going down in defeat, assuming it even makes out of committee, but it’s never safe to underestimate the Midwest. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Avery, is regarded as too liberal by  Tea Party groups which targeted him in the 2010 election. That, alone, is probably enough to make many in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature shy away from it.

There’s little doubt, too, that McDonald’s will respond to this bill with far more resources than it did in San Francisco because a successful strike against advertising to children in a place like Nebraska means the fight has moved to an entirely new level.

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