Without a Toy, Are Happy Meals Any More Than Sacks of Food?

San Francisco bans the "happy" part of the equation

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"Somehow the San Francisco Board of Supervisors just took the happy out of Happy Meals," said Scott Rodrick, owner of ten McDonald's franchises in the city. San Francisco is indeed on the fast-track to ban toys from Happy Meals (and other similar chain tie-ins). The only truly surprising news is that the city isn't the first to implement such a radical measure. Another California county, Santa Clara, robbed the progressive city of first-in-the-nation honors.

San Francisco's move, which mayor Gavin Newsom opposes, was settled by an 8-3 veto-proof decision made by the city's Board of Supervisors. It also revived the ethical debate about whether making unhealthy foods harder and less appealing to purchase will actually discourage consumers to buy them (as health officials hope), or if it's just annoying and doesn't really alter behavior (as McDonald's argues). New York's Mayor Bloomberg faced a similar firestorm just a few weeks ago when he banned food stamp users from purchasing sodas with taxpayer money.

  • These Politicians Are Effectively Stealing Toys From Children  AOL's BloggingStocks writer Kevin Kersten hopes that McDonald's lawyers find a loophole around the decision. "I am not a lawyer, but I feel the kids need someone to stick up for them here," he writes. "For their sake, I hope that McDonald's marketing and legal departments do some swift thinking and find a loop hole in the ban. Maybe they could sell the 'happy meal' toys and give away a burger, fries and drink with them? Maybe they could reduce the price of the 'happy meal' by one cent and then charge one cent for the toy."
  • It's Not About Punishment, Just 'Incentive' Rachel Gordon at The San Francisco Chronicle outlines the rules of the new ordinance, which has a heavy veggie emphasis. "Restaurants may give away a free toy or other incentive item only if the meal contains less than 600 calories, has less than 640 milligrams of sodium and if less than 35 percent of the calories are derived from fat (less than 10 percent from saturated fat), except for fat contained in nuts, seeds, eggs or low-fat cheese....In addition, the meals must contain a half-cup or more of fruit and three-quarters of a cup or more of vegetables. A breakfast meal must contain at least a half-cup of fruit or vegetables."
  • It Stunts the Traditional Happy Meal Experience at least, that's McDonald's current sentiment. NPR's Scott Hensley details the corporate titan's "disappointed" response. "McDonald's is unhappy. 'We are extremely disappointed with this decision,' company spokeswoman Danya Proud said in a statement. 'It's not what our customers want, nor is it something they asked for.' The fast-food chain says research shows the proposal is 'unrealistic' because kids aren't likely to eat the sorts of meals stipulated by the ordinance."
  • McDonald's Should Take a Cue From In-N-Out  Fast Company's Ariel Schwartz concedes that McDonald's might be able to "tweak" their menu to conform with the new standards. But it's better off pursuing a new model: "MickeyD's could take some lessons from In-N-Out, a popular fast food chain in the Western U.S. that seems to do just fine without using toys to lure children."
  • Ironically, Health Foods Are Now Marketing Like McDonalds  The Wall Street Journal's Katherine Hobson notes that "we couldn’t find research on whether this kind of law could actually increase purchases of more healthful foods." She did, however, notice "a bunch of attempts to use marketing or delivery techniques usually associated with fast food, soda and chips to push more nutritious fare, including a repackaging of baby carrots and a new vending machine to gently deliver non-bruised fruit to snackers."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.