Happy or Unhappy Meals? The Conflict between CSPI and McDonald’s

July 9, 2010

This month the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) announced it would sue McDonald’s over the use of toys in Happy Meals.  The announcement was part of a letter sent to McDonald’s demanding it change its ways.  The toys are said to lure children into a life of unhealthy eating and even obesity.  The toys are deemed “unfair” and “deceptive” advertising that is illegal in many states. 

“McDonald’s is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children,” said CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner. “McDonald’s use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits young children’s developmental immaturity—all this to induce children to prefer foods that may harm their health. It’s a creepy and predatory practice that warrants an injunction.”  http://www.cspinet.org/new/201006221.html

Happy Meal toys have been part of the Beanie Baby fad and have had links to numerous movies, television shows, and cartoons.  The list of toys include Star Wars, Hello Kitty, Spiderman, and Shrek.  These are powerful draws for small children and even some adults.  However, adults should be able to make informed choices about nutrition and health but small children cannot.  Parents argue that cannot ignore the nag factor and give in to demands from their small children for unhealthy Happy Meals.  Even with some healthy options, the Happy Meals are generally unhealthy with fat, sugar, and salt.  In essence, CSPI contents that MacDonald’s socially irresponsible.

McDonald’s waited a few days then responded strongly to the CSPI threatened lawsuit.  McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner said “Happy Meals are a fun treat, with right-sized, quality food choices.”  The message was part of a letter written in response to the letter from the CSPI.  McDonald’s maintains that it offers choices to parents including healthy options such as apples and milk. 

“’Walt Riker, McDonald’s vice president of global media relations, said CSPI’s letter crossed the line with their “unprofessional rhetoric and insulting tone.’ The Happy Meal, Riker said, is a popular and positive experience that can be a part of a healthy meal. ‘There are plenty of options and combinations that would fit within a daily diet,’ Riker said, adding that in the U.S., the company advertises a Happy Meal with white-meat nuggets, low-fat milk and apple dippers.” http://chicagobreakingbusiness.com/2010/07/mcdonalds-ceo-stands-up-for-happy-meal-toys.html

As is common, social media has become a part of this lawsuit/health debate.  Angry stakeholders have posted negative comments to the CSPI Facebook page about the lawsuit.  Here is a sample post:

“I do agree with the mission of CSPI, to make our food safer and more nutritious. However, I do not agree with this lawsuit. It is still the job of the parents, not an agency, to protect their children and make healthly choices on their behalf, and to lead them into the future with the tools necessary to make their own choices on nutrition.”  http://www.facebook.com/pages/Center-for-Science-in-the-Public-Interest-CSPI/240937060405?ref=search

There is a concern that the CSPI is going too far and that the lawsuit is frivolous.  People feel there are more important issues for the CSPI to address and that the Happy Meals are really a personal issue for parents and should not involve the courts or government regulation.  http://www.marketwire.com/press-release/Parents-Debate-Center-Science-Public-Interests-Facebook-Page-About-McDonalds-Lawsuit-1282901.htm

Questions to Consider

  1. Are Happy Meals unfairly attracting children to unhealthy food?  Defend your answer.
  2. What merit is there in the CPSI’s actions even if you think they go too far?
  3. How effective do you think the McDonald’s defense is for the issue?  Justify your answer.
  4. What makes this case a public relations concern? 
  5. What does McDonald’s stand to lose in this case?
  6. How is social media helping or hurting McDonald’s in this case?
  7. What are the ethical concerns in this case?

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