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banning toys from Happy Meals…

Posted by on Nov 16, 2010 in Blog Posts | 17 comments

Had you heard that San Francisco is banning toys from Happy Meals? I’m curious what your experiences have been with Happy Meals.

Yesterday in the airport there was McDonalds and a sub shop. M likes subs better, but immediately asked for a Happy Meal.

M had her first Happy Meal August ’08. She was just shy of 3. The cousins were her from France and we were on a roadtrip. It made a HUGE impression. Months later she still talked about the little stuffed dog she got. We had a rule that McDonalds was for travel time. So, last Easter I called her while she was at the airport with Dad. “Mom! Guess what! I’m having a Happy Meal!””Great! Is it yummy?” I replied…

This summer driving to Michigan we stopped there a few times. She was really disappointed with the toys for girls (a doll) while the boys got cool action figures. I noticed she hardly ate the food. Turns out, she doesn’t like the food much, but craves the piece of crap toy.

So, yesterday we are at the airport. Flight delay and hungry. She asked for a Happy Meal.
Me: M, what do you want at McDonals?
M: I want the toy.
Me: That is the only food we will have until we get off the plane. There is also a Subway here. Would you rather eat McDonalds or Subway?
M: can I have Cheetos? (See my post on Subway and Cheetos… and being judged around feeding)
Me: Yes.
M: OK, I want Subway then.

It was interesting that she knows she doesn’t like the food at McDonalds, but only the toy. We got our turkey with pickles and tomato and she ate most of that, with half the bag of Cheetos. She saved the rest of the Cheetos for the plane.

My question is. Should SF ban the toys? If food should just be food, part of me thinks, yes, ban the toys. The other part of me feels it’s a little creepy, Big Brother and where will they stop? Will kids need to step on a scale to see if they can eat certain foods? Will the school BMI report-card mean that they can’t scan “unacceptable” foods? Will I not be allowed to give my child Cheetos? What about that hellish car trip where I do want the toy to keep her a little busy or have something to look forward to. (I bought a ton of little toys at the neighborhood garage sale and tossed those to the back seat every hour…)

What do you think?

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  1. Maryann

    We are out of a kitchen right now and went with some friends to McDonalds. My 4-year old wasn’t really into the toy. We usually go to In and Out — much better food. I was also disspointed with my chicken sandwich.

    I just don’t think going after food companies like McDonalds is the answer. It sends the wrong message and I’m sure it will draw more (not less) interest from kids.

    • katja

      I LOVE IN and OUT, but there aren’t any in Minnesota! I remember walking into one when my in-laws lived in CA and actually seeing people peeling potatoes behind the counter! I totally agree that demonizing foods will increase the desire, shame, secrecy and binging. The best sauce is the “I shouldn’t eat this, this is bad for me” we pour on liberally. I have found that once I have myself permission to eat as much X as I wanted, i was surprised to find it often didn’t taste as good as I remembered.

  2. Amanda

    I think it’s a complicated issue. I don’t agree with marketing to kids, but banning toys is more than a little big brother-ish. I wonder if the next thing to be targeted will be the indoor playspaces that many fast-food restaurants have? Perhaps it’s not an issue in relatively balmy Berkeley, but in colder climates those indoor playspaces are one of the few opportunities for kids in some neighborhoods to engage in free play and exercise during the long winter months.

    The biggest problem I have with the banning of the toys is that, like so many government regulations around food and eating, it doesn’t actually work towards solving the problem. The problem isn’t that fast food restaurants give toys with their meals, the problem is that fast food restaurants serve cheap unhealthy meals made up of food produced by government subsidized factory farm complexes. This is just another in a series of band-aid solutions that are proposed–slap a band-aid on the problem while the wound festers underneath.

    Personally, my son who is about to turn 4 has eaten several Happy Meals. It’s just food, not a forbidden fruit to be pined for. Just food–not the healthiest food, but fine to have every now and again. No big deal. And when you’re traveling either across state lines or even just a couple hours away, sometimes your options are limited. A meal, a toy to keep him occupied for a bit in the car, and perhaps even some time spent playing at a playspace, these are not bad things.

    • katja

      Thanks Amanda. All great points. Food is just food. I hadn’t even considered the indoor play spaces. Here in the Twin Cities, there are several (but cheapest is $5, so is out of reach for many parents.) Kind of ironic that one of the few places for kids to move their bodies in colder climates for free is McDonalds. (I’m talking 10 below with windchill…) I agree on the bandaid argument. I’ve read studies about banning soft drinks from schools where there was no effect on soft-drink consumption, and as usual the conclusion was not to look at why soda is so much cheaper than alternative choices, but to recommend a zoning ban for several miles around schools. (Not to mention the study found that the fatter and leaner kids drank the same amount of soda, so the premise is likely faulty that soda causes obesity.) There is room in a healthy diet for all foods.

  3. Claudine

    I live in South Africa and for the past year or so, toys have been banned with meals as it is seen as a sneaky way of advertising aimed at children which is considered unfair. However, the fast food companies have found a way around that – offer the toys for sale with certain meals. So the kids still get what they want and you pay for the toy anyway.

    As for the quality of McDonalds, my 9 year old son last ate a meal there when he was around 2 years old. My 7 year old daughter has never eaten anything at McDonalds. The reason for this is because my son always ended up with the most horrific constipation and stomach issues whenever he had the happy meal or a burger.

    Personally I feel that banning the toy is a good thing.

  4. Aberdeen

    I concur that the toys, rather than McDonalds’ less-than-healthy food, are the main draw for kids. Kids either eat something they don’t really want, or throw it away. And 9 times out of 10 the cheapo toy winds up in the landfill.

    While it may be “big brotherish” to ban a company from using toys as a marketing gimmick, the government could instead require that any such “free toys” be made in America. This would put more Americans to work and raise the cost of the Happy Meals such that parents would have to think a bit harder before caving to the demands of their children.

  5. Jess

    Can I just say, sometimes I *love* living in Berkeley. My son (3.5 y.o.) has never been to McDonalds and it’s a complete non-issue because none of his friends have either (they exist in Berkeley, but you don’t see many families in them). I am sure someday he’ll get into it, but for now I can ignore it (not watching tv with commercials helps, too). We have been to In-N-Out burger (it’s our version of ‘only when we’re traveling’) which he loves, but I like it, too because, in addition to being tasty, it’s a fresher, more “real food” option. Plus, they’re are NO kids meals at In-N-Out and no catering to/advertising to kids.

    @KellyK: ITA that it should be sneaky marketing to kids that is the point of objection, not the nutritional content of the food. In Quebec, they completely banned *all* television advertising geared toward children and junk food consumption went down! The SF rule is too ripe for exploitation as you point out.

    • KellyK

      Wow, go Quebec. I think that’s awesome. At least give the little ones a chance to learn how to view advertising critically before we start bombarding them with it.

    • the milliner

      Um, I live in Quebec, and there is tv advertising geared towards children. At least on the anglophone national cable networks (Treehouse, YTV). So, I’m not sure if you meant food advertising for children. Or advertising on the Francophone stations. And even then, I’m not so sure. Granted, Treehouse (for 2-5 yo) has minimal, short and calm commercials (which is actually new. I think they had none before). But YTV is laden with commercial after commercial. We stopped on that channel once by accident and my 2.5 yo was instantly in that zoned out gaze. Scary.

      Of course, not to say that I would love it if the advertising was banned from all the channels we get.

      • Jess

        Hi Milliner, I don’t live in Canada so you would know better than me! I got my info from an academic paper ( studying the effects of a law passed in Quebec in 1980 which bans advertising directed toward children under 13. However, in the paper they do note that Anglophones in Quebec have access to other sources of media from elsewhere in Canada and US. I guess the ban applies to television produced in and broadcast from Quebec. In the study I read, they do control for whether the household is Anglophone or Francophone and then compare to Anglo/Franco control households in Ontario. They find the effect of the ban is stronger on Francophone households, although there is still some effect on Anglophone households (which makes sense given that the ban would only represent a partial reduction for Anglophone households).

  6. Jennifer

    The toy is pretty well the only reason my son wants to go to McDonalds. He will eat some of the food there but it’s definitely the toy that draws him in.

    I don’t think there should be ANY advertizing directed at kids. I do think there is much more damaging advertizing directed at kids than Happy Meal Toys but I know my family would eat at McDonalds less often if that toy was not an option.

    As far as the difference between a toy and dessert I see them as quite different. To me dessert is just part of a meal (or at least some meals) It’s not a special item, something that you take home with you and play with for days.

    What drives me the most insane is that advertizers jutify manipulating (advertizing to) children by saying that it’s ultimately the parents’ responsibility to decide what their children can or can’t have. I’m calling crap on that rationale, and it’s implication that we are trodding on free speech by trying to limit advertizing to kids. Kids are not adults and they don’t have the cognitive development of adults, they need protection from negative, exploitative influences.

    I think it is completely wrong that advertizers spend hundreds of millions of dollars advertizing to children, finding ways to manipualte them, and to get them to manipulate their parents. It is not okay that child psychologists, who are supposed to be helping children, are working with advertizers to help increase advertizing’s influence on children. Whether I give my children lots of “junk food” or none at all, all the advertizing that is done promoting junk food affects them. No matter how good a parent I am I cannot compensate for all the negative influence of advertizing. grrrr.

  7. KellyK

    I think that including toys with a meal is a cheap trick to market to kids, and I’m okay with banning that as a marketing strategy. Where I have the real problem, and wehre I think the Big Brother aspect comes in is that they have specific calorie, fat, and sodium guidelines, under which a meal *can* be marketed to kids by including a toy.

    First off, if it’s an unfair marketing ploy, it should be banned period. If it’s not okay to sell french fries or McNuggets that way, then it’s not okay to sell an apple and a sub that way. Secondly, it contributes to the oversimplification of “healthy” into “low fat and low calorie” and implies that little kids need to be eating a low-calorie diet and that fat and sugar are always bad.

    “Healthy” is complex and multifaceted. If a kid’s going through a growth spurt, a Happy Meal might actually be better for them than, say, a kid-sized salad and a fruit cup because they *need* those calories. (Granted, there are better ways to get the calories in general, but if it’s an either-or, there’s not automatically one right choice.)

    Under San Francisco’s new rule, it would be totally okay to create a Skinny Princess Meal that consists of a salad with low-fat dressing, a Diet Coke, and one of the 80-calorie Disney Princess snack packs and market it to little girls with a cute pink toy. (I feel a little ill just picturing that, but I’ll be unsurprised if it exists in the next five years.)

    I know parents who like the idea because they’re trying to feed their kids what they refer to as “real food” (natural, minimal processing, humanely raised, no HFCS, etc.). And removing the toy helps cut down on the begging for things they don’t want their kids to have. Problem is, not every parent has those same feeding priorities, and SF’s rules don’t even have anything to do with how “natural” a food is.

    Basically, I’m 100% okay with prohibiting the marketing ploy for reasons you mention. Food should be food, and using the pester factor is a cheap trick. I’m not okay with a specified calorie level at which a meal becomes “okay” for a kid to have, or with pushing parents and kids toward low-calorie, low-fat, regardless of an individual kid’s nutritional needs, how hungry they are, or, gee, what they feel like that day.

    • katja

      Love it. Thank you. You are all being more thorough and thoughtful than I am today it seems. Back from vacation and eager to post. Thanks for the added bit that low-cal meals could get a toy. Blech, blech and blech.

  8. Kate S.

    I have two thoughts:

    1. If you are in a situation where your child would prefer the sandwich shop but wants the toy. McD does sell the toys individually (they are usually around $1 in Canada). We’ve done this many times when the toys were especially interesting (Disney Princess costume pieces, Strawberry Shortcake stamp pads).

    2. I can see the above poster’s point about cigarettes etc. However, I actually don’t mind McDonalds, for those times when we are eating fast food. My daughter does eat the food, we get chicken nuggets, fries and apple slices and milk (she doesn’t know about the caramel dip) and she eats a reasonable amount (doesn’t eat it all … she’s not a big eater). I can get one of their new salads which are tasty and quite vegetable laden. I’d much rather go there than to other hamburger places where there are not as many options. I don’t find the toy is the main incentive for us anyway – she really wants the play place, and if you are on the road in not nice weather, a little run around time can really help!

    Okay actually I have three thoughts:

    It does seem a bit big brother to me too. Other places give you a dessert with the meal (DQ an ice cream, A&W a packet of candy), is that okay but a toy is not? Why?

    • katja

      Thanks for catching the cigarette thing. I forgot to mention that I think there is a huge difference between cigarettes and “junk” food, though many equate the two these days. That’s a whole other post! Did not know about the toy separately… Thanks!

  9. Lauren

    I get where you’re coming from on “where will it stop?” But I think of it as more of a marketing regulation than anything else. Just like cigarettes have specific laws not allowing marketing to children, The Children’s Television Act, etc. I am apparently in the minority, but I’d be for it if my city wanted to pass a similar law.

    • katja

      I think in general mixing up food/toys isn’t the greatest thing, so I wouldn’t have a problem with banning toys from Happy Meals. Just wondering what they’ll ban next… I HATE TV ads marketing foods to kids. It goes against the whole Division of Responsibility. It is MY job, not my 4 year old’s to decide what food she is offered. Advertisers know the power of “pester power” and that many parents will cave. I read somewhere that General Mills spends 40 million on ads for Fruit Loops alone!


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