Class Action Lawsuit Targets McDonald's Use of Toys to Market to Children

Practice Illegally Exploits Children, Says CSPI


A mother of two from Sacramento, Calif., says that McDonald’s uses toys as bait to induce her kids to clamor to go to McDonald’s and to develop a preference for nutritionally poor Happy Meals. With the help of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, today the mom, Monet Parham, is filing a class action lawsuit aimed at stopping McDonald’s use of toys to market directly to young children. The suit will be filed in California Superior Court in San Francisco shortly after the court opens for business Wednesday morning.

According to Parham, the main reason her six-year-old daughter, Maya, asks to go to McDonald’s is to get toys based on Barbie, i-Carly, Shrek, or Strawberry Shortcake. The food seems almost beside the point to the kids, says Parham, because the toy monopolizes the attention of Maya and her two-year-old sister Lauryn.

“I am concerned about the health of my children and feel that McDonald’s should be a very limited part of their diet and their childhood experience,” Parham said. “But as other busy, working moms and dads know, we have to say ‘no’ to our young children so many times, and McDonald’s makes that so much harder to do. I object to the fact that McDonald’s is getting into my kids’ heads without my permission and actually changing what my kids want to eat.”

Documents cited by CSPI in the lawsuit show that the Parham family’s experience isn’t accidental. It is entirely by design.

“Go after kids,” is how Roy Bergold, who headed McDonald’s advertising for 29 years as chief creative officer, described the company’s strategy in an article in QSR magazine. “Ray Kroc said that if you had $1 to spend on marketing, spend it on kids. Why? Because they can’t get to your restaurant by themselves and they eat a lot.” Bergold also acknowledged in a separate QSR column that “companies have found that kids are a lot more tempted by the toys than the food.” McDonald’s “gets into the parents’ wallets via the kids’ minds,” according to an online presentation by Martin Lindstrom, who advises McDonald’s on branding and “neuromarketing.”

And Joe Johnston, who was on the advertising-agency team that developed the McDonald’s Fun Meal, which pre-dated the Happy Meal, bluntly explained the centrality of the toy to the meal’s marketing: “Yes, even then, we knew that we needed the toy to make it work.”

Fast-food companies—with McDonald’s by far in the lead—spent over $520 million in 2006 on advertising and toys to market children’s meals. Toy premiums made up almost three-quarters of those expenses, totaling over $350 million.

According to the Institute of Medicine and the American Psychological Association, kids as young as Maya do not have the cognitive maturity to understand the persuasive intent of advertising. Advertising that is not understood to be advertising is inherently deceptive—an idea that CSPI’s lawsuit points out is well established in law. “Every time McDonald’s markets a Happy Meal directly to a young child, it exploits a child’s developmental vulnerability and violates several states’ consumer protection laws, including the California Unfair Competition Law,” said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner.

Even though Happy Meals television advertising shows brief glimpses of healthier products, such as Apple Dippers and low-fat milk, the default options put into Happy Meal by McDonald's employees are usually French fries and sugary sodas. In a CSPI study of 44 McDonald’s outlets, French fries were automatically included in Happy Meals 93 percent of the time. Soft drinks were the first choice offered to customers 78 percent of the time.

According to CSPI, a reasonable lunch for a typical sedentary four- to eight-year-old should not exceed a third of a day’s worth, or about 430 calories. Of the Happy Meal combinations that are possible, only a handful fall under that threshold—and even those have more than one-third of day’s worth of sodium. But none of the Happy Meals that are served with fries or a soda are healthy for children aged four to eight, according to CSPI. A meal of a cheeseburger, fries, and a Sprite has 640 calories, 7 grams of artery-clogging saturated fat, and 35 grams—or 9 teaspoons—of sugar.

“McDonald’s congratulates itself for meals that are hypothetically possible, though it knows very well that it’s mostly selling burgers or chicken nuggets, fries, and sodas to very young children,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “In other words, McDonald’s offerings consist mostly of fatty meat, fatty cheese, French fries, white flour, and sugar—a narrow combination of foods that promotes weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease—and may lead to a lifetime of poor diets.”

“What kids see as a fun toy, I now realize is a sophisticated, high-tech marketing scheme that’s designed to put McDonald’s between me and my daughters,” Parham said. “For the sake of other parents and their children, I want McDonald’s to stop interfering with my family.”

In June, CSPI first notified McDonald’s it might be the target of a lawsuit. Repeatedly, CSPI offered to meet with McDonald’s to try to reach an agreement that would avoid litigation, but McDonald’s refused.

In anticipation of filing its suit, CSPI served McDonald’s with a letter on Tuesday instructing the company to preserve any documents in its possession related to the use of toys to market Happy Meals to children. Lawyers for Parham will seek to examine those documents in discovery as the case proceeds. In addition to CSPI's Litigation Unit, Parham is also represented by private attorney Richard Baker of Baker Law, P.C. in Birmingham, Alabama.

CSPI’s litigation unit has taken on food marketing to children before. In 2006, CSPI notified Kellogg that it would be sued for marketing sugary cereals and other junk food directly to children. After negotiating for more than a year, CSPI and Kellogg reached a historic settlement agreement that set nutrition standards for the foods the company may advertise on media with young audiences. Since then, Kellogg only advertises to young audiences if a serving of the food meets certain nutrition criteria. Subsequently, numerous other companies announced voluntary nutrition standards for their advertising.

In previous fast-food litigation, CSPI sued KFC for using partially hydrogenated oil, which made KFC’s chicken high in trans fat. CSPI dropped that lawsuit when the company agreed to phase out partially hydrogenated oils. KFC chicken is now trans-fat free.

McDonald’s use of toys to market to children is also beginning to come under scrutiny by local officials. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently passed an ordinance setting nutrition standards for children’s meals sold with toys, and CSPI is urging other jurisdictions to consider similar legislation.

See what experts are saying about Parham v. McDonald’s here

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