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McDonald’s put in the mincer over Happy Meals marketing

That’s the flipside of being a global brand: bad news travels even faster than good. One minute you’re landed with a class-action by a disgruntled San Francisco consumer advocacy group, the next The Guardian is launching an agonised national debate on whether McDonald’s Happy Meals should be banned in the UK.

And all because little kiddies are given free break-on-impact toys every time they manage to bully their parents into taking them down to the local Macca for a high-calorie, high-cholesterol, sugary, salty binge.

All this irresponsible image-mongering of McDonald’s as the unacceptable face of capitalism has got its chief executive officer Jim Skinner very hot under the collar. In a recent interview with the Financial Times he lashed out at his tormentors as “food police.”

You can sympathise with his exasperation, in a way. Last month, the good burghers of San Francisco voted to ban the sale of Happy Meals, starting late next year. Now the Center for Science in the Public Interest (the advocacy group in question) has brought a lawsuit on behalf of a certain Mrs Monet Parham, alleging that Happy Meals promotional toys are a pernicious marketing device that seduces kids into flocking to the nearest McD fast-food outlet. Here’s an extract from the Sacramento mother-of-two’s deposition that gets to the kernel of the matter: “I am concerned about the health of my children and feel that McDonald’s should be a very limited part of their diet and childhood experience…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.”

This is an issue that McDonald’s cannot duck, for two very good reasons. First, it touches on the limits of freedom of commercial expression. Many parents seem to believe that what McDonald’s is doing is underhand and unacceptable. But there is another point of view (and, not surprisingly, one shared by the fast-food retailer itself). Parents also have a duty of restraint over what they allow their children to do: they are not pawns to infantile egotism.

Secondly, if this consumerist revolt actually takes wing, it could result in Happy Meals being taken off the menu. And that would be a serious blow – for McDonald’s shareholders at any rate. Happy Meals appear to account for about 10% of McDonald’s $31bn US annual sales. But there’s more to it than that. Children are key to McDonald’s marketing strategy and Happy Meals is the iconic sub-brand that has encompassed that strategy since 1979. According to Ad Age:

In Technomic’s 2009 Kids and Moms Consumer Trend Report, kids “overwhelmingly chose McDonald’s as their favorite fast-food restaurant,” with 37% of kids surveyed choosing it as their favorite. The second-most chosen was Subway, with 10% of kids claiming it as a favorite. About 8% of kids surveyed said Burger King was their favorite fast-food restaurant.

More important is why they are choosing it. According to Technomic’s report, the “influence of a toy is much stronger for kids than parents in a kids’ meal-purchasing decision.” About 87% of six- and seven-year-old kids and 80% of kids ages eight and nine said they enjoyed getting a toy with their kids’ meals, according to the report. “The Happy Meal has become a staple in the American family lifestyle, ” said [Technomics executive v-p Darren] Tristano.

Not much at stake then. It will be interesting to see how one of our most illustrious marketers, Jill McDonald – who is now McDonald’s UK ceo, bats this one off.

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