For Immediate Release
Class Action Lawsuit Targets McDonald's Use of Toys to Market to Children
Practice Illegally Exploits Children, Says CSPI
WASHINGTON - 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
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
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
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.