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The Happy Meal Melee: Why McDonald's Is Waging War on the "Food Police"

Instead of caving to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, as many other food companies have, McDonald's (MCD) is waging war on "the food police," which yesterday filed their planned Happy Meal lawsuit. The reason for the chain's Palinesque response: Kids' Happy Meals are a goldmine, responsible for close to 10% of food sales in the U.S. And that's not counting the additional food purchased for mom and dad.

McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner has apparently decided that Happy Meals are worth fighting for, even if that means a protracted court battle and the possibility of embarrassing internal documents surfacing. (You may recall that it was the unsuccessful McDonald's-Made-Me-Fat lawsuit that led to Chicken McNuggets being derided as a "McFrankenstein creation" by a judge.) Skinner is taking his chances; he refused to meet with CSPI to negotiate a deal and flatly told the Financial Times that Happy Meals are here to stay:

We've seen many years of someone trying to dictate behaviour through legislation. Our Happy Meals have been supported by parents since the 1970s. The nutrition of Happy Meals, which include apples, meets FDA guidelines. We sell choices on the menu that make our customers feel better about their lifestyle.
The crux of CSPI's lawsuit, which was filed in California on behalf of a Sacramento mom (though of course CSPI is the real plaintiff), rests on the idea that using toys to sell Happy Meals is deceptive and exploitative because young children do not have the developmental maturity to realize when they're being marketed to. The 28-page complaint quotes an Institute of Medicine report:
Before a certain age, children lack the defenses, or skills, to discriminate commercial from noncommercial content, or to attribute persuasive intent to advertising. Children generally develop these skills at about age 8 years, but children as old as 11 may not activate their defenses unless explicitly cued to do so.
It's a good legal strategy, though McDonald's will no doubt employ its own compelling arguments -- that it's a parent's job to resist their child's Happy Meal nagging and that the company offers certain healthy choices like Apple Dippers and plain milk in Happy Meals.

But even if McDonald's ends up winning this lawsuit, it's hard to see how it comes out ahead here. Instead of taking on a lawsuit that opens it up to new scrutiny, requires it to trash one of its customers and tacitly acknowledge that some of its foods aren't that healthy, McDonald's would be better served in the long run to realize that the time to end, or at least alter, the long-running Happy Meal-toy marriage has come.

There are at least three other, more constructive courses of action the company could take, though none of them are without short-term pain:

  1. Phase out toys in Happy Meals. The pain: kids clearly wouldn't buy as many.
  2. Make all Happy Meals healthier so that they fit into nutrition guidelines like those outlined by San Francisco's new ordinance against Happy Meal toys. The pain: Hard to do and kids might reject the healthier meals.
  3. Only put toys into Happy Meals that come with Apple Dippers and milk, not fries and soda. The pain: This would encourage kids to eat better, but would undoubtedly elicit howls of criticism that McDonald's has become the new nutrition nanny.
While all of these options would likely result in a meaningful hit to U.S. sales, McDonald's could certainly find ways to minimize and manage it, or offset it with international sales. McDonald's does a good job at proactive solutions-- see oatmeal. Instead they're fighting a battle they can't win.

Image by Flicker user Leo Reynolds

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