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Nutrition advocacy group sues McDonalds over Happy Meals marketing

December 15th, 2010

From Green Right Now Reports

Toys that entice children and their parents to McDonald’s for meals have long been a source of contention between nutritional experts and marketers.

Sanrio watches, a current toy at McD's.

Now a Sacramento mom, with the help of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is taking the case against fast food toys to court, claiming that marketing nutritionally dubious meals to kids via toys amounts to fast food chains pulling a fast one.

Monet Parham, mother of Maya, 6, and Lauryn, 2, filed a class action lawsuit today California Superior Court in San Francisco that aims to stop McDonald’s from marketing to her young children.

“I am concerned about the health of my children and feel that McDonald’s should be a very limited part of their diet and their childhood experience,” Parham said.  “But as other busy, working moms and dads know, we have to say ‘no’ to our young children so many times, and McDonald’s makes that so much harder to do.  I object to the fact that McDonald’s is getting into my kids’ heads without my permission and actually changing what my kids want to eat.”

A McDonald’s responded to the lawsuit, defending Happy Meals as a “fun experience for kids and families at McDonald’s

“We are proud of our Happy Meals and intend to vigorously defend our brand, our reputation and our food,” said company spokeswoman Bridget Coffing. “…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.”

The case, which hopes to win class action status, comes at a time when studies are beginning to show that fat and sugar consumption has jumped the rails in America, leading to epic youth obesity and diabetes problems.

CSPI, a nutritional advocacy group based in Washington, helped compile court documents in Parham’s case. The evidence details McDonald’s history of marketing to children, showing how the fast food chain decided to use complimentary baubles and toys to lure young customers to nutritionally deficient “Happy Meals”.

According to reports, the strategy had the blessing of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. CSPI quotes a former McDonald’s ad executive saying, “Ray Kroc said that if you had $1 to spend on marketing, spend it on kids. Why? Because they can’t get to your restaurant by themselves and they eat a lot.”

Another ad executive, who helped develop the Fun Meal, precursor to the Happy Meal, is quoted as saying: “Yes, even then, we knew that we needed the toy to make it work.”

CSPI objects to the direct marketing to kids because it exploits their vulnerability, said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. According to the lawsuit:

Children under the age of eight do not understand advertising; they lack

the ability to perceive its persuasive intent. When exposed to advertising, children

under eight lack the skills to know when and by whom they are being persuaded.

Children nonetheless influence the purchasing decisions of their parents.

McDonald’s exploits that influence, by bombarding children with advertisements for

Happy Meals with toys, knowing that it will result in kids nagging parents to purchase nutritionally poor Happy Meals for their children.

Gardner maintains that this marketing violates the California Unfair Competition Law as well as the consumer protection laws of other states.

McDonald’s has defended its approach to kids’ meals by noting that adults make the ultimate choice, and that at the drive-through there are healthier options, such as milk and apple slices.

But a CSPI study of 44 McDonald’s outlets found that French fries were automatically included in Happy Meals 93 percent of the time and soft drinks were the first choice offered to customers 78 percent of the time, according to a CSPI release.

A meal consisting of a cheeseburger, fries and a Sprite has 640 calories, 7 grams of “artery-clogging saturated fat” and 35 grams or 9 teaspoons of sugar, and is simply not a healthy meal for a child of 4 to 8 years old, CSPI reports.

The watchdog group dismisses McDonald’s inclusion of healthy side options, like sliced apples, saying they are not the default option and that the meals remain high in sodium even when those sides are chosen; or high in sugar when soda is chosen.

“McDonald’s congratulates itself for meals that are hypothetically possible [when healthier sides are chosen], though it knows very well that it’s mostly selling burgers or chicken nuggets, fries, and sodas to very young children,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson.  “In other words, McDonald’s offerings consist mostly of fatty meat, fatty cheese, French fries, white flour, and sugar—a narrow combination of foods that promotes weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease—and may lead to a lifetime of poor diets.”

The CSPI lawsuit focuses on McDonald’s because it is the largest fast food chain, and the architect of marketing to children.

American fast food makers spent more than $520 million in 2006 (the latest figures available) on advertising and toys to market children’s meals.



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