Industry News | June 28, 2010

Nonprofit to McDonald's: No More Toys—Or Else

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Nearly three months after a California county raised eyebrows by banning toys in kids meals that didn’t meet certain health requirements, a national nonprofit is pushing the toy-ban idea further by threatening to sue McDonald’s.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington, D.C.–based health advocacy group, announced that it served McDonald’s a notice of its intent to sue if the company does not stop including toys with Happy Meals.

“Over the years we’ve talked to McDonald’s about improving its child-oriented practices, and we’ve suggested things such as making the meals healthier,” says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the CSPI.

“We urged them to make the healthy option the default option, so kids would normally get apple slices rather than french fries. We urged them either not to give toys with Happy Meals or to only give them with the healthier meals. We got nowhere.”

The letter issued to McDonald’s calls the company’s practice of offering toys with Happy Meals “predatory” and “wrong.” It argues that toys urge kids to “pester their parents to take them to McDonald’s,” where “they are more than likely to receive a meal that is too high in calories, saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium, and devoid of whole grains.”

“McDonald’s marketing has the effect of conscripting America’s children into an unpaid drone army of word-of-mouth marketers, causing them to nag their parents to bring them to McDonald’s,” the letter reads.

Jacobson says that because McDonald’s had not worked with the CSPI to improve its options for kids, the next logical step was through litigation. The hope, he says, is that it won’t have to go to court.

“Our experience over the years has been [that] companies don’t deal with us in a serious way unless we start talking litigation,” he says. “And then they come to the table and we have good discussions.”

Through a statement to the media, McDonald’s USA vice president of communications William Whitman said Happy Meals are “right-sized” for kids, and that the company is “committed to a responsible approach to our menu, and our Happy Meal offerings.”

“We couldn’t disagree more with the misrepresentation of our food and marketing practices made by the Center for Science in the Public Interest,” Whitman said.

“Since 2006, we have been a part of the Council for Better Business Bureau's voluntary initiative to address the importance of children’s well-being. In the U.S., McDonald's primarily advertises the four-piece Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal, which includes Apple Dippers, low-fat caramel dip, and one percent low-fat white milk.”

Jacobson says the ball is in McDonald’s court, and that he hopes “they will agree to some discussions.” In the meantime, he believes this move from the CSPI will help encourage other brands and governmental bodies to explore the issue behind toys with kids meals.

“I think that our threat on McDonald’s encourages other cities and states to either ban the practice [of toys with kids meals] entirely or limit the practice to healthier meals, defined in some way,” Jacobson says.

But in McDonald’s, it seems, the CSPI may have found an unswaying opponent.

“We are proud of our Happy Meal, which gives our customers wholesome food and toys of the highest quality and safety,” Whitman said in his statement. “Getting a toy is just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald's."

By Sam Oches