Toys in my happy meal – why not?

There’s sure to be a lot of “nanny state” charges in the wake of a decision by the Santa Clara County supervisors in California to ban toys from fast food. And that’s understandable. Why should the government get involved in whether my kids can have toys with their chicken nuggets? If parents don’t want them to have the fast food, they can just say no, of course.

But the bigger picture here is the insidious nature of marketing to children. The food companies aren’t putting the toy in the happy meal so the kids will want it this one time. It’s part of the overall brand positioning that seeks to get hold of them early, and keep them for a lifetime. The toy tends to give the child a favorable impression of, let’s say for argument’s sake, McDonald’s. Now they associate McDonald’s with something good, something fun, something they want. The message finds a comfortable lodging place in a young impressionable mind. That toy is going to keep on giving back.

Food marketers are spending billions to figure out what works to sell to kids, so don’t underestimate any of these methods. They have the best experts on this mission full time, and they know what works. So if they put toys in the kids’ meal then, believe me, it works.

Now the next argument is, What about the parents? It’s up to them – right? – to decide what the kids eat. Well, see above. The parents, who may actually have to go to their day jobs, can’t spend all of their time trying to figure out the marketers’ tactics, and then figure out how to counter them. Some parents aren’t even psychologists! Marketers have found ways to manipulate kids to pester and nag their parents – their tired parents who have to go to work each day. Another key marketing effort is to find ways around parents – such as by marketing directly to kids in school, a trick for which McDonald’s is infamous.

Here’s a quote from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, from 2005 when the organization called for curbs on marketing tactics for selling junk food to children:
“Parents are outgunned by food companies and the toys, cartoon characters, celebrities, and psychological munition that food marketers have at their disposal,” said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. “Parents try to get their kids to eat bananas, broccoli, and whole wheat bread, but those messages get drowned out by marketing for French fries, cookies, and candy.”

It’s not clear where and to what extent government action should come in, but the government may be the only entity that’s big enough to counter the food marketing machine.

I do think it will be a little bit difficult for this jurisdiction to implement the ban. Under this regulation, restaurants can give toys and other prizes if certain nutritional conditions are met- such as calorie count for individual items or a whole meal, and limits on sodium, fat and sugar content. There’s a lot of new oversight and testing that would need to be done. So I’m not sure that this ban is going to be the best way to address the problem of marketing unhealthy foods to children, but I have to applaud the effort.

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