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Is the Happy Meal Illegal? Should It Be?

Happy MealWhen I was five, my parents took me to McDonald’s to get a Happy Meal so I could get a little rubber dinosaur. I already had a blue dimetrodon (the five year-old me would never have believed I’d have to look up the spelling of that), but I wanted the gray pteranodon, which I got and could probably still dig up at my parents house today. Did something sinister happen that day? Did McDonald’s exploit my undeveloped mind? Did they pit my need to own as many plastic dinosaurs as the plastic dinosaur industry could produce against my parents’ desire to see me become a healthy adult?

According to a lawsuit filed last December by a Sacramento mother with the backing of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the answer is yes. I’ve been reading up on McDonald’s, toys, and advertising lately, and I’m not so sure.

There’s no question fast food is bad for children. It’s true that you can get a salad now or fruit instead of fries, but let’s face it- grown-ups don’t go to fast food joints for the healthy stuff and kids definitely don’t. It’s technically possible to put together a Happy Meal that has 390 calories (McNuggets, apple dippers, low-fat milk), but most Happy Meals are probably closer to 590 calories (hamburger, small fries, small Sprite), a calorie count that constitutes well over a third of what most kids should eat in a day. And that’s before we get into fat, sugar, sodium, and carbohydrates, which the Happy Meal is loaded with.

But the Center for Science in the Public Interest claims that advertising and marketing to children who can’t recognize persuasive intent is inherently deceptive and therefore illegal. This seems like a weird definition of “deceptive” to me. It’s a definition that has nothing to do with the truth of their advertising and marketing.

CSPI paints a picture of parents being forced by their children to buy Happy Meals for the toys. And this is where their argument breaks down for me. We know kids can’t understand commercials and we know they can’t determine what’s healthy for them. That’s why we make those decisions for them. It’s not going to kill a kid to eat a Happy Meal now and then and I certainly got my parents’ money’s worth out of that pteranodon. When it’s not a good time for them to have fast food, tell them no.

That’s a parent’s job. Having to tell your kid that they can’t have something they think they really want can feel awful, but what’s the worst that happens? They might cry a little and then they get over it. This lawsuit seems to me like it’s less about protecting kids from junk food and more about protecting parents from parenting.

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