Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Not-so-Happy Meals

My three-year-old son has formed a strange attachment to McDonald's. 

He loves McDonald's.  He talks about it, points out restaurants, mentions how he likes the food.  He also thinks the name sounds funny and that it's cool it starts with the letter "M".

But the kicker?  He's never eaten at McDonald's, been in a McDonald's or seen a McDonald's TV ad.

So how does he even know about the place?

The power of marketing
That, my friends, is the power of some serious marketing and branding (helped along by the laser-eyed focus of a typical three-year-old).  He sees the logo everywhere (and it really is everywhere if you pay attention).  He hears it discussed by other people (friends included) and has seen (and smelled it) in his sister's school cafeteria.

It's a prime example of how kids under the age of eight take in everything around them with all five senses. My son has been influenced by McDonald's - without ever having stepped foot in one.  And lucky for me, he is totally unaware of the Happy Meal and the FREE TOYS!  If he knew, he would be all over it (and me) in a heartbeat.

No more toys?
So I perked up when I read that the Center for the Science in Public Interest (CSPI) is intent on suing McDonald's for "unfair and deceptive marketing" by offering Happy Meal toys.  CSPI claims that McDonald's is influencing children to eat unhealthy (and become more unhealthy, as a result) by appealing to their desire for toys.  

Here's an excerpt from CSPI's website:
"Getting children accustomed to eating burgers, fries, and soda puts them at greater risk of developing obesity, diabetes, or other diet-related diseases over the course of their lifetimes, according to CSPI.  We know from scientific research that young children—and even older ones—do not have the ability to understand how marketing has been designed to influence them...But regardless of the nutritional quality of what’s being sold, the practice of tempting kids with toys is inherently deceptive.."
Is it kind of hard-core?  Yes.  A bit over the top?  Possibly.  But do I agree with it?  Absolutely.  I think it is necessary to grab every one's attention as to how marketers are stealthily targeting our kids and consistently influencing them at younger and younger ages - and not always with their best interests at heart.

Sorry, but fast food is unhealthy
Fast food is unhealthy, no matter how you dress it up with apple dippers in place of fries or milk instead of soda.

With just one Happy Meal, your child will eat one-third to one-half of her daily recommended calories, two days worth of sugar and more than half a day's worth of sodium.  All in just one meal.

In my opinion, kids shouldn't eat fast food.  They are in the critical stage of learning what is healthy and why - and how to form good habits for a lifetime (not just eating, but brushing their teeth, getting enough sleep, washing their hands, listening in school, etc.).  I've seen kids as young as seven already overweight with high cholesterol or high blood pressure, on their way to a (short) lifetime of health problems.    

And a lifetime of eating fast food (a learned habit from early childhood) can only harm them, not help them. 

Parents' role
Some argue it is the parent's responsibility to choose what their child will eat and McDonald's has no part or responsibility in it. As a parent of two young kids, I agree that it is primarily my responsibility.

And I will admit that, even as a dietitian, it's hard work to get your kids to always eat healthy, to stock the right kinds of food, to cook at home even when you're tired - every day, non-stop, for years.  But most of us do the best we can, because it's the right thing to do.

For the rest of us?  Maybe it would help just a bit if the toys were gone.  Anyone who has kids knows the power of the whine.  Especially on a tired, run-down parent.

As for McDonald's responsibility?

McDonald's has become part of many families' mealtimes - that's simply the way it is, unhealthy or not.  Is it because of free Happy Meal toys?  Perhaps partly, but there's much more to it than that. 

Whatever the reasons, McDonald's should take a hard look at themselves and admit as to why, really, they offer free toys.  And decide if that particular marketing strategy is the best - no, the right - thing to do. 

Photo Credit: Jeff Cronin

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