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McDonald's Happy Meal McControversy Continues

Posted by Barry Silverstein on December 16, 2010 01:00 PM

Looks like there's still no happiness (on either side) as the McDonald's Happy Meal battle in San Francisco rages on.

In November, mayor Gavin Newsom vetoed the Board of Supervisors' ban on toys in fast food meals if the meals failed to meet nutritional standards. But now a consumer group, The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), is jumping into the fray.

CSPI yesterday filed a class-action suit in California Superior Court charging McDonald's with violating the state's consumer protection laws, claiming that Happy Meals "constitute unfair and deceptive marketing." The suit was brought on behalf of Monet Parham, a Sacramento mom with two children.

According to Marketing Daily, Parham, who is a health educator, said "she is concerned about her children's health and wants to limit their consumption of McDonald's food, but marketing of toys featuring popular children's characters puts her and other parents under heavy pressure" to deny their children's requests to eat there.

Parham stated, "What kids see as a fun toy, I now realize is a sophisticated, high-tech marketing scheme that's designed to put McDonald's between me and my daughters."

CSPI cites stats that in 2006, fast food chains spent over $520 million in the US to market children's meals, with two-thirds of that amount used to promote the toys that go with the meals. It puts the blame on McDonald's because of its leading position in this area. CSPI further claims that a study of 44 McDonald's restaurants revealed that fries were "automatically" included with Happy Meals 93% of the time, even though McDonald's says it offers healthier sides as an option.

For its part, McDonald's said in a statement that it will "vigorously" defend its brand and the Happy Meals it serves to kids. "We listen to our customers, and parents consistently tell us they approve of our Happy Meals," McDonald's said. "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 McControversy started in August when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors introduced legislation banning the toy giveaways. The move created heated debate; on the one hand, children's health advocates applauded the concept while, on the other, fast food restaurants reviled the decision.

Daniel Conway, public affairs director for the California Restaurant Association, said at the time, "Toy bans are only proven to disappoint kids, frustrate parents and generate headlines for ambitious politicians. The Board of Supervisors needs to stop gorging on political gimmicks and instead focus on creating jobs in their city."

Parents were divided on the issue, with those who opposed it saw the legislation as one more attempt by the government to control their lives.

Others, like CSPI, blame fast feeders (for which McDonald's is the poster restaurant, and its Happy Meal offering the lure) for childhood obesity — a campaign that prompted President Obama to sign legislation promoting healthier meals in schools this week.

Will Ronald McDonald and Mayor McCheese prevail on behalf of the toy-seeking kids of America... or will health advocates anxious to put a dent in the childhood obesity epidemic win the McBattle? And with Happy Meals available globally — that's a French promo, above — we'd be curious to hear if they're an issue for McDonald's outside the US, too.

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