Food Marketing to Kids: Why Ronald McDonald Will Survive But Happy Meal Toys May Not

Last Updated Sep 16, 2010 6:55 PM EDT

The Center for Science in the Public Interest's threat to sue McDonald's (MCD) if it doesn't stop putting toys in Happy Meals opens up a new front in the escalating war over the marketing of unhealthy food to kids. And this time, McDonald's is in a fight it may not be able to win.

It's tempting to dismiss CSPI's threat letter as so much predictable posturing by a group The Consumerist calls "perennial buzzkills." But the reason CSPI has been around long enough to levy so many attacks on the food industry is that they tend to pick their battles carefully, especially when it comes to legal action.

Using the threat of lawsuits, CSPI has succeeded in getting more than a few companies to back down and change their practices. In 2006, they got Kellogg (K) to agree to nutrition standards for products marketed to kids under 12. A year before that, they were instrumental in getting Coke (KO), Pepsi (PEP) and their bottlers to stop selling most sugary drinks in schools.

CSPI argues that offering toys with Happy Meals is inherently unfair and deceptive because young kids aren't mature enough to understand when they're being marketing to. McDonald's responds that its Happy Meals now include healthy choices like Apple Dippers, unsweetened milk and juice (carrot sticks and cherry tomatoes are available in Latin America). But despite these choices, CSPI's research shows that most US Happy Meals include fries, not apples, in part because many McDonald's employees put them in there without offering other choices.

CSPI's attack on Happy Meals comes less than two months after California's Santa Clara County captured headlines for voting to bans toys in children's fast food meals. McDonald's is hardly the only chain that uses toys to tempt kids, but since it's so much larger than its competitors, McDonald's makes the easiest target. CSPI's move also follows a Corporate Accountability campaign urging McDonald's to retire Ronald McDonald on the grounds that he too unfairly lures kids into eating unhealthy, fattening food.

While it's easy to argue that Ronald is simply a fun-loving clown who doesn't actually sell any food, it's getting increasingly hard in an age of childhood obesity to defend the rampant use of toys to sell hamburgers and fries to young kids. Many studies have shown what is already painfully obvious to most parents -- that kids go crazy over toys, especially familiar characters like Shrek, and absolutely must have anything that's associated with them.

McDonald's, which has been using toys to sell food for decades, isn't going to buckle easily in this fight. Bill Whitman, vp of communications, said that the company "couldn't disagree more" with CSPI's claims that McDonald's is violating laws. "Getting a toy is just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald's," he said.

Although it's unlikely that McDonald's will ever completely abandon such a core strategy as Happy Meal toys, CSPI's track record suggests that a compromise scenario is likely. Perhaps toys only go into Happy Meals that include healthier choices, thereby encouraging kids to swap apples for fries.

Image by Flckr user Joe Shlabotni