August 17, 2010

Hate The Playa, Not The Happy Meal Toy

happy_meal_fantasy.jpgHappy Meal toys are the toy equivalent of McDonalds french fries, which are in turn the food equivalent of cigarettes. They incite and fill an instant craving. Their utility wears off in about five minutes. By which point, they've lodged themselves in lungs, arteries, and carseat cracks, though not necessarily in that order.

There should not need to be laws to protect children from such industrial-scale manipulation of primal behaviors. But you know what, parents are often giant, oblivious idiots when it comes to Happy Meals. Food or toy, they can't see their own susceptibility being played and upsold, any more than they can see their own feet. They don't want to be told what to do, but they're more than happy to let some random corporation decide what their kid eats.

And so San Francisco's Board of Supervisors is reportedly [though I can't find the actual legislation itself, and damned if USA Today's gonna actually cite or link to it] considering a ban on toys with restaurant kids' meals that don't "meet more stringent calorie and sodium limits."

Which supposed, proposed legislation is based on actual legislation passed in Santa Clara County, next to San Francisco, San Jose and everything in between, but which turns out to only affect about a dozen fast food restaurants in the unincorporated areas of the county. As SFGate reported in April:

The law bans toy giveaways in children's meals that contain more than 485 calories, derive more than 35 percent of their calories from fat or 10 percent from added sweeteners, or have more than 600 mg of sodium. The totals are based on children's health standards set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Let's run the numbers:
A hamburger's 250 calories.
Cheeseburger, 300.
4-pc McNuggets, 190.

Small fries,230.
Apple Dippers are 100, but 70 of that is the dip.

Soda's 150, but milk or juice is 100.

So anyway you fry it, it's basically a choice between fries or a toy.

Which is interesting, because HappyMeal.com doesn't even mention fries with a Happy Meal anymore. Or soda. And yet, as USA Today reported last month, fries and soda were the default for almost all Happy Meals. This, according to Center for Science in the Public Interest, whose 75 secret Happy Meal shoppers across the country were given drink options ["Soda was usually the first option mentioned." Oh no!!] but were only asked, "fries or apples?" 7% of the time, which means five times. Not exactly peer-review, but good enough to sketch out the differences between McDonald's media/information strategy and their internal operating defaults.

luke_wilson_happy_meal.jpgBut then that story suddenly veers into a threat "to sue the fast-food chain if it continues to use toys to promote Happy Meals to children."

And then holy smokes, the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood suddenly goes off on Happy Meal toys last week, not because they're misleading or unhealthy, but because the Ben Grimm doll "menacingly roars 'It's clobberin' time!'" and because the Human Torch is, seriously, "a man on fire." Seriously. Is it just me, or has the whole world gone Frito Pendejo 495 years ahead of schedule?

Which would explain why no one even touches on the real [sic] problem with Happy Meal toys, which is that they're corporate, crap, and outrageously gender-stereotyped. It is just me. I'll just shut up and wait for pumpkin pie season.

598 comments, of course: San Francisco proposal would limit toys in kids' meals [usatoday]
Santa Clara County says no to fast food toys [sfgate.com]
'Want fries with that' assumed, not asked for McDonald's Happy Meals [usatoday]
Controversy Surrounds Fantastic Four Happy Meal Toys [cinematical]

14 Comments

My biggest problem is that even if you ask for the apple dippers, I get the fries nine times out of ten.

Which sucks because McDonalds still has the healthiest kids meal of any national fast food chain with:

4 piece nuggets
Apple Dippers minus dip
plain milk

I'd love to find something anywhere that could rival it, if for no other reason than to have variety when we travel.

Subway has kids' meals with a sandwich (choice of turkey, beef, ham or veggie), apple slices and milk that should be slightly less bad for your kid than the least-unhealthy Happy Meal.

But you can do far better health-wise with a 5 minute foray into a supermarket just about anywhere. Things like flavored yogurt, nuts, cheese, mini carrots, raisins, apples, oranges and bananas require no preparation, have none of the preservatives or other junk that go into McDonald's and Subway, and are generally pretty appealing to kids. My kid likes to eat frozen peas right out of the bag, too, although it can be tough to figure out what to do with the rest of the bag after he eats his handful.

I've given up on the idea that the whole world (or country, or state or city) should work the way I want it to, and instead do my best to chart an acceptable course through the options available. So far, it hasn't been an issue. Want healthy food? Buy it. Don't like a given product? Don't buy it.

I fail to see what return on investment of time and strife that legislation preventing the foolish and lazy from doing foolish and lazy things will bring.

Even in a "think of the children" argument, the root cause of the problem is not the combination of sodium and cost-engineered, color/gender coded toys.

Eliminating one small way in which these people can disservice their children doesn't really affect the infinitum of other ways they're teaching their kids to just buy what's convenient or popular without any critical thinking.

Wow...that got rant-y quickly. My apologies. Apparently I need a cookie or something.

Mad-Science, I totally enjoyed that rant.

me, too. No cookies, but perhaps you'd like one of my two cherry pies? They were just one dollar!

For all the hyperventilating consumer activist groups and random county-level legislators are doing, it really just boils down to making small changes to default settings, the sociological equivalent of bumper guards on the table. It's such incremental shifts that end up rippling through, though, and having larger or longer term effects. They're adjustments to the macro environment, and if they can be shown to have a proven benefit, or a net-benefit, then they should be considered. Frankly, the very existence of apple dippers and milk is the result of broad shifts in cultural norms, and it's at least less bad, if not actually good.

As for us, my kids will eat their occasional 4-pc mcnuggets, splitting the apples, and having maybe ten fries apiece. Except for my issues with the toys, it's really no big deal for us.

Yeah...philosophically speaking, I'm not a big fan of making laws to protect people from making unwise choices.

...pragmatically speaking I know that given the opportunity, many consumers will make terrible choices. Terrible enough that eventually it'll become a problem for me over in my little holier-than-thou fort. (See also: mortgages)

I'd rather see the effort going into education so as to avoid the unwise choices or (specific to food) opportunities for physical activity so the extra 100 calories doesn't really matter. But this line of reasoning is quickly drowned out by diatribes about protecting children from evil greedy corporations or the big bad guvmint cracking down on consumer freedom.

Hence my overall disillusionment with things working the way I wish they did. If anyone needs me, I'll be in my fort...

We usually specify the toy based on its appeal, not its assigned gender, and every so often they have one which is played with a week later. Granted, not that often, but we do have some that are still played with a year later.

While I personally despise McDonalds and find the food inedible, my son loves it.

We save his trips there for when he's with his grandparents.

As to the toys, pure crap. I can't think of one that wasn't a waste of the ~$.01 worth of plastic it was made from.

Some of the gender-typing of Happy Meal toys is quite entertaining. Not in a good way, but in a "confirming my lack of faith in humanity" way.

And the "playa" is never the $23 billion corporation with the multi-billion dollar annual marketing budget is it? I hope this debate gets away from the silly dichotomy that it's either the corporation's fault or wholly the corporation's.

Of course some parents are weak-willed, if that's what you want to call it -- 1/3 of our children are overweight or obese -- but that doesn't mean transnationals have carte blanche to exacerbate a public health epidemic through all forms of manipulative marketing.

We know that eliminating even one form of marketing could reduce this number by 15% and the annual health care tab by billions. Is a corporation's avowed "free speech" rights really worth sacrificing the greater public's explicit rights?

By indicting parents and providing no means to address the staggering human toll, bloggers and journalists are really doing this discourse a disservice. The role of the fast food industry in making our kids sick needs to be challenged, while, at the same time, dads and moms begin to discuss real, tangible solutions to help others take greater responsibility in protecting our children's health.

Meant to say "wholly the parent's" in the first graf. That should make more sense!

Not sure how much we need to worry about 'the Ben Grimm doll "menacingly roars 'It's clobberin' time!'" '...

My four year old thinks he's yelling, "It's cooperating time!" and I'm not planning to correct him.

Yeah...philosophically speaking, I'm not a big fan of making laws to protect people from making unwise choices.

The flip side of that argument is that folks who patronize McDonald's on a regular basis should be ineligible for health insurance coverage (whether public or private) if they develop type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease. Because their (or their parents') unwise choices shouldn't drive up my taxes or insurance premiums. If they want treatment for illnesses they most likely could have prevented, they should pay cash.

Same goes for motorcycle accident victims who weren't wearing helmets, lung cancer patients with a history of smoking, etc.

(Obviously this is an extreme position, but you get the point)

I should be ineligible for health insurance coverage for eating a Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad once a month? Why?

I actually think some of the toys are pretty good. I loved the "How to Train Your Dragon" dragons. My kids still play with those. The food, however, is only for very rare occasions. My kids know it's bad for them, but they still beg for it. But we still tell them no, and so far the world hasn't ended! :)

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