McDonald's sued for Happy Meals toys
Maya Parham loves McDonald's. But not because of the food. According to a lawsuit filed in California last week the fast food giant is using Barbie, Shrek, Strawberry Shortcake and a galaxy of other toy and cartoon characters to lure in the six-year-old. Now Maya's mother, Monet, wants it to stop.
"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," she said.
Her suit is backed by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and comes as McDonald's and its rivals face pressure over their use of toys to sell kids' meals. In California, two counties have imposed nutritional limits on the meals McDonald's can sell with toys attached. In Wisconsin, the fast food firm recently fought off another lawsuit. These toy wars are being fought against an increasingly heated debate over what to do about the US's obesity rate.
McDonald's hit back last week. Chief executive Jim Skinner told the Financial Times that the "food police" were trying to "dictate behaviour through legislation". In a statement, the company said it would "vigorously defend" its brand.
Critics are challenging Parham's stance as an "everymum"; she is employed by the state of California and works on child nutrition matters. But as obesity rates rise, John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University, believes McDonald's can expect more suits. Banzhaf founded Ash, the anti-smoking lobby, and sees some parallels between the tobacco and food companies.
"I think there's a good case to argue that it's unfair and deceptive to target young children with something that means a lot to them in order to induce them to eat something so unhealthy," he says.
A quarter of the children in Santa Clara county, California, where McDonald's has also faced legal pressure over toys, are overweight, according to government officials.
Establishing a causal link between fast food and obesity has proved difficult. The Parham suit takes a step back from the health debate. CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson says his primary concern is the way McDonald's targets children. He says the firm's own sales figures show that its Happy Meal didn't take off until the toy was included.
According to the lawsuit, a former top McDonald's executive, Roy Bergold, who headed McDonald's promotional activities for 29 years, told trade journal QSR: "Go after kids. Ray Krocsaid 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 is also said to have told QSR: "Companies have found that kids are a lot more tempted by the toys than the food."
Campaigners compare McDonald's tactics to those used by cigarette companies. Jacobson says: "Even tobacco companies show some self-restraint these days. These fast food companies think little kids are fair game… This is unfair marketing regardless of nutritional value, whether they are selling a pound of lard or a pound of broccoli."