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Happy Meal Suit Not About McDonald's Menu

By Madeline Holler |

happy meal, mcdonalds menu

Awww. Go tell your mom to get you one.

A Sacramento mother of two is suing McDonald’s. Why? Because they offer toys in Happy Meals. (Or, as others interpret the situation, a mother is suing the fast-food chain because she can’t say “no” to her kids.)

It’s McDonald’s fault, mom Monet Parham says, that she has to listen to endless requests from her kids to go get Happy Meals, so effective is the hamburger giant’s marketing strategy. So she and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the non-profit watch dog group that put movie theatre popcorn on the defense, are taking McDonald’s to court for false advertising.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the suit alleges the following:

“McDonald’s exploits very young California children and harms their health by advertising unhealthy Happy Meals with toys directly to them” and that “children 8 years old and younger do not have the cognitive skills and the developmental maturity to understand the persuasive intent of marketing and advertising.”

To which I say: Where can I donate to Parham’s legal fund?

I’m a mother who can and does say no to her kids — a lot — including, but not limited to, requests for Happy Meals. I’m also a mother who recognizes that my family’s limited media consumption (we don’t get cable, for example) and high media savvy (been clubbing them over the head with facts about how they’re being manipulated by marketers since they were born) has mitigated some of our vulnerability.

Even so, man, do I need help!

My kids get hit with corporate messages all the time — half even I don’t know about. It’s not for a lack of trying or willpower or personal responsibility that my kids want to, for example, go to McDonald’s (or see Tangled or drink Gatorade). The geniuses behind the scenes hoping to sell that stuff know just how to zap the message to my girls without going through gatekeeper me. Toys in Happy Meals? The most iconic zap of all.

See, this suit isn’t about lunchtime spinelessness. It’s not about hamburgers and whether McDonald’s offers apples instead of fries, salads instead of burgers, yogurt parfaits instead of ice cream or sausage biscuits. It’s about advertising and marketing directed at kids who are not yet ready to understand the future consequences of their very now decisions. The suit isn’t about adults — it says nothing about advertising and marketing directed at adults with kids. Rather, it specifically address marketing strategies directed at kids themselves — you know, like Happy Meal toys.

The thing is, we don’t let kids decide whether to learn to read or whether to play in the street. We have standards and laws to meet those societal expectations. So why don’t we have certain limits on the access to our children’s attention and brain space and eventual consumption habits? Why do we rejoice at do-not-call lists but bristle when we want the equivalent for our children — a do-not-intrude-on-my-child’s-mental-space measure?

McDonald’s isn’t the only corporation to figure out how to get its brand message directly to kids. And fast-food chains aren’t the only industry to employ these strategies. But McDonald’s is attention-grabbing and an icon. And fast-food, like cigarettes before it, isn’t so good for kids. Of course suing McDonald’s is where this should start.

But it’s not where it should end.

A successful outcome of this suit would give some kind of regulation for all types of advertising aimed at kids and formulated to undermine parental input. Like the Los Angeles Unified School District‘s insane, backward-thinking agreement to offer up students to corporate advertisers — that wouldn’t even be a possibility if Parham and the CSPI are successful.

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About Madeline Holler

madeline-holler

Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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30 thoughts on “Happy Meal Suit Not About McDonald's Menu

  1. Diera says:

    I’m not generally fond of slippery slope arguments, but in this case I can’t see how the exact same reasoning doesn’t apply to pretty much all children’s television, video games, toys with elements that a parent objects to (toy guns, Barbies, etc.) and anything else that is desirable to children that parents don’t want to have their children attracted to (and for any product, there is some parent who doesn’t want their kid attracted to it). I’m having trouble figuring out how this would work. Any ads aimed at children have to be reviewed to make sure that they’re not – too attractive? You can advertise to kids but not by making the product seem like something they’d want?

  2. Sam says:

    Are you kidding?

    No.

    Seriously.

    Are you kidding? I cannot wrap my mind around this situation.

    Are you serious? Really?

  3. anon says:

    My daughter is r.5, and she doesn’t even know what a happy meal is.

  4. ALittleShort says:

    This makes me so furious and what makes me more furious is that someone would actually side with her. Why she is punishing McDonald’s because she can’t say no to her children is beyond me. YOU are the parent. and YOU are in control. Don’t companies for doing their job, because you are too lazy to parent your child and instead allow your child to be parented by the tv. And if that is how you want to parent then you need to deal with those consequences. Your children are not heading out to McDonald’s on their own in your car with money they lifted from your purse, which means you are driving them there. YOU are allowing them to have the control.
    This whole thing aggravates me to a whole new level. Why?? because I’m sick and tired of parents blaming society for their child’s behavior. Step up to the plate and be the parent and say “No we are not going today. Maybe some day but not today. And if you keep asking and whining at me then it will be longer before we go.” How hard is that? I mean really? How about your drive that car home where they can eat their toy free dinners instead?
    Put your big girl or big boy pants on and parent your child! TV and ads for toys and “kid” things and happy meal toys have been all over the tv for decades. What has suddenly changed now that you feel you have to sue McDonald’s for advertising what they have been advertising for DECADES? Growing up, I saw those commercials for the toys, and other toys, and somehow I knew better then to beg my mom to take me to McDonald’s, and understood that MdDonald’s was a rare treat to enjoy every now and then. And my mom was so “evil” that we had to sit there and eat our ENTIRE burger before even opening the toy *gasp* Oh the horrors!!!! I had to stare at it as I was eating my food!!!! Let me tell you how much that did not scar me.
    Not to mention all the time and money this stupid law suit will tie up in the courts. I’m so sick of the US and all its “sue first ask questions later” mentality. That is part of why we don’t have national health care because of all the malpractice suits. Stop suing and get out there and parent your child yourself. Why don’t you all sue the tv companies for creating the tv in the first place? Oh wait, cause then you wouldn’t have anything to babysit or parent your child.

  5. ALittleShort says:

    sorry for the few typos, i proof read, but i am also aggravated and missed a few.

  6. Eric says:

    To illustrate using your “Playing in the street” analogy, the limitation of marketers access to our children by prohibiting their message would be similar to prohibiting cars from driving on the roads so that children can play on them safely, whereas the equivalent of telling them to not play in the street would be turning the television off.

    But what you’d really be missing is a valuable lesson for your children. I remember *very* clearly around age 8 or 9 starting to notice that the kids in the commercials were way more excited than was really warranted for the little plastic gizmo that came with my McNuggets, even without even a grown up suggesting I should. My own 11 and 13 year olds haven’t been interested in what’s in the happy meal box for 5 years. It’s a marketing scheme that makes sense to a 6 year old because it’s an appropriate for a 6 year old to feel a sense of wonder at $0.29 worth of Chinese plastic followed by 20 minutes crawling through Ronald’s Playhouse.

  7. Gretchen Powers says:

    agree with alittleshort and others who think this is bullshit

  8. J A Steele says:

    Sounds like this lady needs to grow a set and tell her kids NO. Why is it that one thinks they have to take a case like this to court instead of showing some parental responsibility. Kids don’t learn boundaries by tell them yes. “No” helps form those boundaries. Please tell me this lady can’t have more kids.

  9. Micky says:

    I agree with Madeline. This isn’t about lazy parenting, as A Little Short seems to think, and it is not about the appropriateness kids products themselves, as Diedra believes. There is a reason that we have banned advertising certain products to children–like cigarettes and alcohol. It’s because kids are not yet rational choice makers and the messaging that they internalize before they are fully developed affects how they make a lifetime of choices. Kids interact with advertising differently from adults and there is an entire industry, based in child psychology, built around exploiting those differences. For example, studies have shown that brand loyalty is most effectively established in childhood, because kids are too young to separate the emotional messages from the sales pitch and they internalize them deeply. We are fine with regulating advertising of obviously harmful products to children, which I think is a tacit admission that there is merit to the complaints of this lawsuit. If it weren’t, then ALittleShort would be chastising us for simply being too weak to keep our kids away from cigarettes. But I think we should go a lot further because it is the medium itself that is exploitative and toxic, not just particular products that are toxic.

    The reason I disagree with this strategy is that I think that a lawsuit is a bad place for this battle to be waged because lawsuits are cumbersome, their outcomes are fact-specific, and any gains are subject to being overturned by laws anyway. The place for this battle is in state and federal legislatures. Regulation of advertising directly to children is a long time coming. Unfortunately, money talks, so I don’t think we’ll be seeing effective legislation any time soon.

  10. J A Steele says:

    Micky, is that what we really need, More Legislation? Thats what we have now. We are legislated to death. Everyday more and more of our personal freedoms are legislated away because of somebody and their stupid decisions. I, personally don’t care what type of advertising is done (as long as it is not explicit) and shown on TV in manner that my kids can see. It is my job, and only my job (not Friends, Colleagues, Government, Depart of Social Services, etc. etc. etc) to raise my children. With that comes responsibility on my part to guide my children the way i see is right, and guide them when they see commercials on why i think a product being advertised is good or bad (or shelter them from these ad’s by keeping them from TV, fast forwarding through commercials, etc). If i fail at that whose fault is that? Mine, thus making me a failure of sorts. But it is up to me to guide them, not the government to force a businesses hand on what they can advertise and what they can’t. Its time people stand up and be a damn parent for once!

  11. Nancy Bridgeman says:

    There is something far more sinister than the sugar and fat in the Mac Donald food. There are hidden Monsodium Glatumate ingredients disguised as citric acid, natural flavors, carrageenan, malted barley, yeast extract, dough conditioners, spices, hydrolyzed protein, ect. Everything is soaked in MSG. This makes the kids eat twice as much as they normally would. MSG makes everything bitter and sour, taste great for children. Poor inferior ingredients can then be used. Dr. Blaylock (Neurosurgeon) wrote “Excitotoxins: The Taste that kills sense he was very concerned about the young and the old eating these substances. Please look at the site called, truthinlabeling, they list over 50 excitotoxins which are MSG. Everyone I talk to would not knowinly feed their children MSG so the word must get out that this food is loaded with MSG. Since the industry uses a different name for the MSG ingredients MAC Donald doesn’t have to post a sign warning the public tha the food contains MSG! The toys bring them in and the MSG hooks them.

  12. Nancy Bridgeman says:

    I learned the above the hard way. I was rushed to the ER with acute Monsodium Glutamate poisoning (rapid pulse, breathing difficulty, rapid swelling, a burning esophagus). I could no longer eat at fast food places. I never knew of the hidden MSG ingrdients TV and newspapers will never carry this information since they depend on the advertising of the food giants. The internet is the only place reporting this. There are very serious illnesses associated with MSG.
    Dr. Blaylock in particular believes it contributes or causes, Alzheimers, Parkinsons and ALS. If you read the blogs, carrageenan caused Cronns disease
    Psoriasis outbreaks, etc.

  13. Laure68 says:

    This is a hard one for me. This lawsuit is definitely about not advertising to children period. The thing is, even for adults advertising is all about getting you to buy something that you don’t really need. Ads use emotions to get you to open your pocketbook. They actually don’t want you to think too much about it. In that way we don’t process ads all that differently from children. However, I can see how ads can be more harmful when targeted to children simply because it sets habits early in life.

    So far we haven’t had a problem with our son asking incessantly for things he sees in ads, but he is only 5 so maybe this starts later?

  14. Gretchen Powers says:

    The bottom line is that children don’t make the purchases themselves and always must go through an adult and so, that adult is the gatekeeper. The ads may make your job more difficult, but that’s life. Pop culture in general may make your life more difficult. I grew up in the 70s and 80s when there were fewer regulations and I, like ALITTLESHORT, simply knew better than to harangue my working-class parents for crap. I think this is more of a problem of bratty kids and weak parents and certainly not something that should require legislation.

  15. Hellen says:

    Turn off the TV commercials….get rid of cable! Control what they watch don’t let it control you!

  16. meme says:

    I agree with Alittleshort and Gretchen. Although I do find it annoying that there are ads for toys and other things during chidren’s programming, that’s life and it’s up to the parent to gate keep and say no when saying no is appropriate.

  17. Nmcdnyc says:

    This is a dumb, and actually pretty obnoxious lawsuit because it infantilizes parents. The subtext here is that the enlightened few will fight the corporate baddies on behalf of the children of all those pathetic unenlightened parents who make McDonalds a way of life. The debate about this isnt much better because it quickly becomes about blaming the parents yet again. But at least the people blaming the parents are being up front about their snobbery and not resorting to weaving tales about the irresistable and manevolent power of McDonalds. Food culture in our society is deeply screwed up but denigrating people directly or indirectly about their diets will make thinks far worse. Food should be one of the joys of life, not a stick we use to beat people whose lifestyles we disapprove of, particularly when their circumstances flow from not having a great deal of control over their lives. Taking away happy meals even on the convoluted and dishonest basis the McDonalds is Satan is patronizing and degrading and demoralizing to parents. The people behind this deeply snobbish lawsuit have no compassion no empathy, no shame and above all, no clue.

  18. Kristy says:

    there is NO way you can compare McDonald’s toys in happy meals to cigarette and alcohol advertising! I completely agree with ALITTLESHORT. I have a 12 year old and a 2 year old and I teach them what is good for them and what is not. My daughter HATES McDonalds and if I am rewarding her for something and ask her where she wants to go out to eat, she’d rather eat at a family restaurant than go to McDonald’s, and it’s ALWAYS been that way. She enjoys food that is good for her because that is what I taught her and I am doing the same with my son!!

    You as parents need to realize that you cannot sue everything you dislike or don’t agree with to remove it from you having to actually deal with it and be a parent! Teach your children what is right and wrong, what is good and bad. Teach THEM to make the right choices so when they grow up the are ABLE to continue to make these right choices!

  19. SBUmom says:

    I agree with alittleshort as well as Gretchen. I’m soooooo exhausted by the inability or lack of desire (of many) to parent these days! Today’s parents* blame everyone else and their brother for their child’s problems and how difficult it makes their job as a parent. These parents should be ashamed of their lack of parenting skills!

    I was curious as to how long it would take someone to compare this to marketing strategies aimed at things “like cigarettes and alcohol.” There IS a difference and this is a poor comparison. The bottom line is: Do your job as a parent. Teach your children what is right, wrong, and what is acceptable in moderation. <—-I wish I could BOLD, UNDERLINE & "SUPERSIZE" this in the hopes that (some) parents today would get the hint.

    The only thing I'm in disagreement with alittleshort in is: "I’m so sick of the US and all its “sue first ask questions later” mentality. That is part of why we don’t have national health care because of all the malpractice suits." Not entirely, but for lumping the entire United States into such a group. That can be saved for another time, another discussion.

    *I am not referring to ALL of today’s parents but merely pointing out that "many" are looking outside of themselves for someone to parent (whether it be the TV, a nanny, video games, etc.) their children as well as someone to blame when they’re unhappy with their children’s behavior, attitude, weight, lack of ambition, etc.

  20. Manjari says:

    I have to agree that it’s up to parents to decide what their kids will eat, play with, etc. No, I don’t like the way McDonald’s markets unhealthy non-food to kids… so I don’t take my kids to eat at McDonald’s. That’s really the answer to the problem. I think this lawsuit is ridiculous.

  21. Lee says:

    I agree with Diera, Alittleshort, nmcdnyc, manjari. When did legislating everything become more reasonable than accepting personal responsibility for your choices?

    To quote another Babble commenter from a completely different post…I keep telling myself it’s wrong to hate these people, but I’m so sick of (them) telling me what to with my body and with my family. Or for that matter, what my daughter will be able to do with her body and family when she grows up.

  22. Micky says:

    Of course it is up to you as a parent what you ultimately purchase for your kids, but that isn’t what is at issue here. Even if I never, ever buy the advertised products, my son is being programmed to have brand loyalty (for example) years before he even has an allowance. Doesn’t that creep anyone else out? Besides, I think it is a little David-and-Goliath-y to assume that parents can effectively mititgate the effects of advertising. There is a huge cost (in time and money) to gain access to the kind of information necessary to counteract the sophistocated messaging of advertisers.

    Bottom line, we already regulate advertising. We have banned subliminal advertising, false advertising, and the advertising of dangerous products (particularly in certian contexts). Why would we not make any attempt to limit a multi-million dollar industry, well-staffed by child psychologists, from advertising directly to a developmentally vulnerable population?

  23. Diera says:

    @Micky, the place where the alcohol and cigarettes analogy falls down is because it is illegal to sell or give cigarettes and alcohol to children; we have agreed as a society that those products are simply too harmful to allow children to use them. I don’t think anyone’s proposing to make it illegal to sell or give cheeseburgers and fries to children; they are only proposing to make it illegal to advertise cheeseburgers and fries to children, and to make it illegal to make one restaurant’s cheeseburgers and fries more attractive than another restaurant’s. I know children aren’t rational choice-makers (not that adults are either, really), but why does that apply more strongly to fast food than fashion dolls or video games or movies or anything else?

  24. ALittleShort says:

    I really want to know what has changed in the last several decades that now parents can’t say no to their children. All of you people here commenting have been tainted or beaten over the head or as Micky says, made to have brand loyalty because of advertising since before you could all walk. Why is this suddenly become an issue? Why is McDonald’s getting sued now and not say 20 years ago? They have been advertising to children for so long, and now all of a sudden we have a problem with it? Next thing you know, Crayola will get sued for advertising their products to children because kids keep asking for crayons!

  25. Gretchen Powers says:

    “I think it is a little David-and-Goliath-y to assume that parents can effectively mititgate the effects of advertising”

    I don’t. I fully expect to be the strongest influence in my child’s life. Advertisers don’t stand a chance.

  26. Joe says:

    @Mickey,

    “Besides, I think it is a little David-and-Goliath-y to assume that parents can effectively mititgate the effects of advertising.”

    You realize David won that battle, correct?

  27. Laure68 says:

    After giving this some more thought I have to agree with those who say this lawsuit is wrong. One thing in particular that bothers me is that these lawsuits seem to be more and more frequent, but it is actually much easier today to keep your kids from watching commercials than in our day. We only had regular TV, no pre-recorded media. I remember watching cartoons that had tons of commercials. My son watches DVD’s and PBS. We don’t have cable, but when we visit my parents there are tons of commercial-free kids’ channels. Why are people complaining now?

    Also, I totally agree with NMCDNYC that there is a lot of snobbishness in this suit. McDonald’s is so often portrayed as evil, but sit-down restaurants have food that is much higher in calories and fat than McDonald’s. But since McDonald’s is cheap it is easy for people to look down up it.

  28. Laure68 says:

    And I also agree with GP that I have a much stronger influence on my son than advertisers. You can’t expect to raise your child in a bubble.

  29. suec says:

    I am simply astonished by everyone who thinks that “just parent your child” and “turn off the TV” is the answer. That’s what the MARKETERS say when people criticize them. Or that advertising doesn’t really influence kids’ thinking. Seriously? They spend MILLIONS of dollars and hire child psychologists to tell them exactly how to manipulate your child. These responses are incredibly simplistic and short sighted. Its not just about purchasing the products. Its about marketing creating a culture that focuses on consumption, materialism, violence, sexuality, poor nutrition, etc. etc. and promotes it incessantly to our young people everywhere they go to make money off of their developmental vulnerabilities. Want to be popular? Buy the latest sneakers. If you don’t look like this model, you have something wrong with you and need to buy this product. Do you people seriously think that the way things are marketed to kids is actually healthy for them? Yes, teach them media literacy skills, and limit their exposure when you can. But to think that you can control everything your kids are exposed to is ludicrous. How about holding marketers responsible for their unethical behavior? Please visit http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org to learn more about this important topic.

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