Santa Clara County Begins the Fast Food Toy Rebellion – Parents Rejoice!

Any parent who has ever driven by a McDonald’s with little ones in the back seat knows how hard it can be to resist the lobbying, often made even worse due to the marketing of toys with Happy Meals. And of course, other fast food chains also lure kids in with the latest installment of some toy series, often tied to the latest blockbuster movie. 
I’ve been saying for years that it’s only a matter of time until some city or county figures out that a simple change in law is all that’s needed to make such promotions illegal at the local level. (Localities have tremendous public health authority that is often underutilized.) On Tuesday, it finally happened, and I am proud to say, in a county in my home state of California.

Yesterday, I posted the press release from Santa Clara County Supervisor (and Board President) Ken Yeager’s office celebrating the passage of an ordinance that limits to use of toys and other incentives to fast food that meet certain nutrition criteria. As Supervisor Yeager put it: 

This ordinance levels the playing field. It helps parents make the choices they want for their children without toys and other freebies luring them toward food that fails to meet basic nutritional standards.

There’s no doubt that luring kids with toys works. The Federal Trade Commission estimated that restaurants sold 1.2 billion meals accompanied by toys to children under 12 in 2006 alone. Further, a 2008 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest identified 12 restaurants with kids’ meal offerings that routinely exceed the recommended caloric limits for children.  Ten out of 12 of those restaurants offer toys with their kids’ meals.
Now, let’s look at the details of this law, since that often gets lost on the press. It’s not just about toys, it’s about a number of “incentives” and here is how that word is defined:

any toy, game, trading card, admission ticket or other consumer product, whether physical or digital…or any coupon, voucher, ticket, token, code, or password redeemable for or granting digital or other access to [those items previously mentioned.]

And here are some of the nutrition standards that limit the use of such incentives:

More than two hundred (200) calories for a Single Food Item, or more than four-hundred eighty-five (485) calories for a Meal;
More than four-hundred and eighty milligrams (480 mg) of sodium for a Single Food Item, or more than six hundred milligrams (600 mg) of sodium for a Meal;
More than thirty-five percent (35%) of total calories from fat. 

Now I don’t think that toys should ever be used as food incentives, regardless of the nutrition standards, and I am concerned about the message that fast food companies should market “healthy food” to kids, but this is a still good start and we have to start somewhere.
So how important is this new law, given that it only applies to the unincorporated areas of one county? I can almost hear the shrugged shoulders and people saying, there goes California again, that wacky state. While Santa Clara County may be just an hour south of San Francisco, and is known for being out in front when it comes to public health, with increasing recognition of the health problems related to childhood obesity and poor eating habits in general, we are probably seeing the beginning of the end for fast food companies using toys to hook kids.
First of all, Santa Clara County was also a leader on menu labeling, along with San Francisco. That idea then trickled up to Sacramento, and California became the first state to enact a similar law. And recently, a federal law passed requiring restaurant chains to post basic nutrition information.
Also, Santa Clara is the home of San Jose, the third largest city in California with more than 7 million residents. While this ordinance does not cover San Jose (due to jurisdictional limitations), if the city council takes up the issue there, it would have a huge impact. Meanwhile other cities known for cutting-edge food policies such as San Francisco and New York, are taking notice. Anyone could be next, and of course, it’s just this domino effect that scares the pants off of Ronald McDonald.
So what happens now? Just like they did with the menu labeling ordinance, it seems likely that the restaurant industry will file a lawsuit, if for no other reason than to scare other cities and counties away from enacting similar bills. Industry could try to challenge the law on First Amendment grounds, but targeting small children with toys and fast food does not exactly sound like protected free speech. 
Indeed, I asked the Santa Clara County Counsel’s office if they expect a lawsuit, and here is what Acting County Counsel Miguel Marquez told me today: 

I wouldn’t be surprised if the restaurant industry sued the County, but we are confident that any case they bring would be unsuccessful. The California Restaurant Association asserted First Amendment challenges to the menu labeling requirements Santa Clara County (and other localities) adopted two years ago, but they now tout menu labeling as an important service they provide to their customers. We hope the restaurant industry would instead put its resources into designing effective ways to promote healthy eating for children.

So just like with menu labeling, a lawsuit is likely to just be a temporary setback. And, by way of responding to those who might think the County has over-reached, he added: 

Local government plays an important role in advancing public health. The restaurant industry often works against parents by luring children into developing a taste for unhealthy foods.

Amen. We need more local leadership like that being displayed by Santa Clara. It’s only a matter of time before McDonald’s and friends sees the writing on the wall and realizes they will have to stop this insidious marketing strategy or risk very bad public relations. And when they do, industry is sure to take all the credit, claim to be responsible corporate partners, and act like they planned it all along.
You can read the full text of the law here and for good local coverage, see the San Jose Mercury News.

31 Responses to “Santa Clara County Begins the Fast Food Toy Rebellion – Parents Rejoice!”

  1. black heart rakkasan says:

    I think is is absolutely awesome. Instead of Santa Clara allowing these companies to think about the profits for the next quarter it has taken the reigns and put the health and welfare of the next generations at center stage. The long term ramifications will be staggering. Lower health care costs over the life of the citizens, improved health, less obesity. It's creative and effective legislation.

  2. Anthony R. says:

    This is disgusting. Learn to tell your kids no. Don't tell a business what it can and can't sell.

    You know, life, liberty (including property), and the pursuit of happiness.

    So here we have a case of a group of American citizens (McDonalds) that would like to offer me, another American citizen, a Happy Meal with a toy at an agreed upon price. But now we can't make that private trade because some other people don't like it?

    Who the hell do you think you are to step into my life and take away my personal liberty (and that of the McDonalds franchise owners)?

    Remember this when someone you disagree with is in power and bans something you like in the name of the public good.

    Atlas Shrugged is coming to life more and more every day.

  3. jennifer says:

    I'm with Anthony R. on this one. If you don't want your children to eat Happy Meals, don't buy them. It's wrong to take away my choice because you are a parent who can't say no.

  4. stellavision says:

    Ditto to Anthony R. and Jennifer. How dare you impose your parenting decisions on others by force? If you don't want your kids to have Happy Meal toys, don't buy them a Happy Meal. Or write to McDonald's and see if you can convince them to *voluntarily* remove the toys.

  5. mg says:

    Well, perhaps all you who support happy meal toys would be glad to pay for the increased medical costs that obesity is bringing to our country. Or perhaps McDonalds would like to pay the costs like big tobacco did and then have to file for bankruptcy. Either way someone will be paying increased health care costs.

  6. Anthony R. says:

    mg,

    Oh that's great…so now let's look at your life and see what 'unhealthy' things you are doing that is making medical costs go up for the rest of us.

    Hmmm, do you ever drink or smoke? If so let's ban alcohol and tobacco. Do you exercise at least 3x per week? If not let's make exercise mandatory for all Americans. Do you drink Pepsi, Coke, or fruit juices? Let's ban sugar.

    You are misrepresenting my argument by stating that we "support happy meal toys". That is dishonest and you should be ashamed of yourself. I don't support Happy Meal toys…I DO support the rights of each and every individual.

    Mind you, the title of this article is basically 'County Bans Bad Thing-Parents Rejoice!', making the main point obvious…that parents jobs are now easier by taking away other individuals' rights. Well if you like using guns on your fellow citizens to make your parenting job easier then be ready for the day when the gun is pointed at you.

    Annnnnd lastly, if you're worried about medical costs going up try getting government out of the health insurance industry; allow companies to compete across state, and even national, lines and stop telling them who and what they must cover. This is too big a topic to get into here, but for anyone that's interested you can start at the Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine (F.I.R.M.) website. There has been a lot of political mudslinging on this topic but I assure you the authors of this blog are NOT fans of the Republicans.

  7. Shara says:

    We wouldn't allow liquor stores to lure our kids in with toys. We wouldn't allow pornographers to offer "Happy Packages" to make their products attractive to children. So why do we defend fast food companies who do not care about children's health and well being and ONLY care about their own profits to have this special "liberty" to market to children? This is the first generation of children that will die before its parents due to the childhood obesity epidemic. This is sad and this is serious. I'm so proud of Santa Clara for standing up to giant food corporations for the sake of its children and saying NO MORE. The Santa Clara ban has already sparked a national movement in Australia (http://www.smh.com.au/national/happy-meals-given-the-chop-20100430-tyal.html), and I hope the rest of the U.S. follows suit.

  8. Anonymous says:

    The problem with the Happy Meal Toys is that the marketing is targeted at CHILDREN. Target your burgers, your cigarettes, your alcohol at ME. When you start messing with kids' minds, that when I get angry. Yes, you are right, parents can say no. And I do. But that means it's ONE MORE THING on the agenda of parents to deal with. Along with all the other crap marketed at kids – and I say crap because very little non-crap is marketed at kids, at least in equitable amounts. It's the multi-billion-dollar companies who can pay ad agencies a bazillion dollars to think how BEST to get into my child's mind. Children simply aren't equipped to think against all of that.

    You all-corporate-is-all-okay types won't like this, but I personally think ALL television marketing aimed at children should be banned. Yes, all. You guys are so gung ho on corporations that you don't see the damage they have done and continue to do to this country. We are killing ourselves and our country along with it. Don't even get me started on oil companies.

  9. Anthony R. says:

    One last response to mg…

    So called "Big Tobacco" had to pay their customers medical costs because THEY COMMITTED FRAUD resulting in disease and death. They said their product was safe and hid their own scientific studies proving otherwise. I don't see McDonalds making bogus medical claims about Happy Meals…or their toys.

    Readers of this blog should observe that the authors main issue is in the marketing of unhealthy products. She is essentially saying that individuals (yes, YOU!) in America are too stupid to make decisions for themselves so we need to stop companies from selling so much of their product…thus less profits…thus fewer employees…thus lower standard of living for all of us.

    You know what? Mrs. Simon makes money selling books. Books are bad for your eyes and raise eye care costs for everyone. We need to ban books.

  10. Anthony R. says:

    Shara,

    "We wouldn't allow liquor stores to lure our kids in with toys. We wouldn't allow pornographers to offer "Happy Packages" to make their products attractive to children."

    We don't allow alcohol and porn sales to children at all. Are you now suggesting we ban Happy Meal sales to kids outright? If not, then your argument is illogical. Liquer stores and porn shops are already allowed to lure kids with toys…they just can't sell it to them so there's no point.

    Bottom line, you are supporting the use of a GUN to stop other individuals from making a trade they want to make. You are using the threat of violence to make others do, or not do, as you wish. That is far worse than anything McDonalds is doing. At least they are non-violent.

  11. Lisa @ Corporate Babysitter says:

    Trolls and kneejerk reactions aside, here's a thought: Since companies can deduct their advertising expenses from their taxes, *my* tax dollars essentially subsidize McDonald's marketing. So maybe I do have a say in how they market and who they market to — since I help pay for it.

  12. jennifer says:

    You know, the simple fact remains: parents have to be responsible for their own children. They have to learn to set limits, they have to make sure their kids get plenty of exercise, and they have to make sure they eat sensibly. This does not mean that eating a Happy Meal once in a while will hurt anyone. Anything's fine in moderation. Let's be smart here. Let's not jump on the latest bandwagon. Food is not the enemy. Ignorance is.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Jennifer, you are naive if you think it's just a matter of setting limits.

  14. SanFranciscoTour says:

    most people are too stupid to make smart choices for themselves and their children so someone has to do it.

  15. jennifer says:

    Well, then, thank heaven people like you and the busybodies from Santa Clara are here to save us from ourselves. Know of any good books you'd like to ban?

  16. HappyNat says:

    SanFranTour,

    So where do we stop in "helping" people make smart choices? Candy bars? Sugary cereals? Pop? Juice? Fried foods? Teaching kids unicorns are real? If you think people are too dumb to make a good decision, how is taking an option away going to make them smarter?

    This is another dangerous step in taking away the freedom of the consumer.

    Even without the toys people will feed their kids fast food. Fast food is cheap, easy, and tastes good, I'd be willing to bet those three factors account for more kids eating fast food than toys. If you can't make a stand on happy meal toys, what else are you letting your kids do because you don't want to put up a fight?

  17. knitwit says:

    @Anthony R

    You should read Ms. Simon's book before you rant. I happen to be the mother of four children who ate very little junky food while growing up, but as the availability of this crap increased and the advertising for it increased, it became harder and harder to fight it. Even if I resisted, they would get it at friends' houses or when out with friends. After a certain age, peers are much more powerful than parents in determining the actions of young people. Marketing to children needs to be reined in so that parents will have a fighting chance. Public health for all trumps your individual personal freedom. No one is saying to ban happy meals, just the inducements that are heavily marketed to make kids beg for them. Food companies spend millions on psychological research just to find ways to make kids nag their parents. It's all well and good to say parents should just say "no", but this is as simplistic as the rest of your rant. The marketing is so intense and so far-reaching, that wanting a toy that comes with a Happy Meal is a cultural norm that a parent is made to feel almost ridiculous for refusing–especially younger parents who themselves have grown up in this world of junk food on every corner, in every gas station, and tv's that are on morning til night hammering the message of "taste" and "convenience". Parents need partners in doing the best for their children, not subterfuge from greedy marketers and shareholders.

  18. Anonymous says:

    No one is saying kids cannot have toys. We're not banning toys so the banning books argument is false. We are banning MARKETING AT CHILDREN. You guys did not grow up this way. Our kids are getting a literal cacophany of marketing and I'm stunned daily that people do not care.

    If McDonalds or whoever wants to target their product at me, fine. But it is just wrong to use those same tactics on kids. Of course they want to go there – if I was 6 and saw something that looked really cool and related to a movie I was already be marketed to HAVE TO SEE, I'd bug my mother constantly to go. I would not be able to say hmm… they just want me to spend my money for crappy food that is unhealthy.

    Yes, a parent can tell that to a child. At the same time they are telling them not to want the junk in the grocery check out. And those video games that are marketed everywhere. Let's not forget the food that has that cute happy cartoon character on it. Oh, and then when they get to school, look at that, Coke is sponsoring my team, how nice, the kids want that, too.

    ACK! How is an average parent supposed to deal with that, let alone a single parent getting by on minimum wage, while taking care of their elderly parents? Yeah, it sure makes saying – oh, fine, let's get a happy meal pretty darn easy. Why is it that ANYTHING a company wants to do is fine, but if a parent wants to set some controls on what is legally allowed to be marketed at THEIR KIDS, well, they are practically communists.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Right on, knitwhit – thanks for being calmer than I am about this!

  20. black heart rakkasan says:

    Just about every parent wants to do the right by their kids. But very few parents understand the effects of the marketing that their kids are be bombarded with.

    The McDonald's toys is a very insidious tactic.

    I've been seeing the post about choice and "Atlas Shrugs." People get a grip. You have very little or no choice at all! Corporations have market data for the last 50 years and they are recruiting the best and brightest to sell you on whatever they want to sell you on. If we truly had choice this would not be a big deal. Yeah, I could give examples, but I'm not – yet.

    People don't take your right-wing ideology and spit out here. This is way too important for mindless ignorance.

    Do some research. Find the facts. Then speak. Here is an organization at Harvard University that studies this topic.

    http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org/

  21. jennifer says:

    It's funny to think that I could be considered right wing. I'm about as liberal as a person could be – card carrying ACLU member and all – and that's why this subject gets to me.

    I will be deal with the corporate ads and talk to my children about them. I'm less concerned about toys that lure children to want to eat unhealthy foods (whatever that exactly means) than I am about rampant sexism and size-ism and violence in ads geared towards, not just children, but all of us.

    I'm always pointing these things out when I see them on TV or in magazines or books or in speeches politicians give. I talk to my kids. I explain everything I can to them.

    I don't ask you to agree with me. I just ask that you not legislate. Raising children is a tough job. The world is full of things we don't like and disagree with, but it's really nutty to get all hyped like this. And I do think banning books is relevant, because when one group rides roughshod over the rest of us under the guise of protecting us for our own good, I can't help but wonder where it will all end.

  22. Lauren says:

    Clearly this is a hot topic. I am a nutritionist and a mom and totally split on this. For very young kids, it's very difficult to reason with kids and explain that happy meals/fast food are unhealthy. I think they are most vulnerable to this lure whether on Dora yogurt, granola bars or happy meals. They are drawn to the characters and the toys. I find though that once kids are older, you can explain what ingredients mean/where food comes from and they get it. It does involve a lot of saying no but I'm fine with that if my kids aren't eating fast food and HFCS and tons of salt. If you really want your kids shielded from Mc Donalds marketing skip McDonalds and go to a pizza place or sandwich shop when you need a quick meal.

  23. HappyNat says:

    OK, evil corporations are marketing things at kids to make money. I don't disagree with this. I agree kids eat too much fast food. I agree with most of what people in support of this bill are saying, I just don't think legislation is the answer.

    Where do we draw the line is what is legal and illegal? Once we get into legislation that bans something and we take the choice out of the consumers hands I believe we are taking a step in the wrong direction.

    Education of the public is key. Hold protests outside restaurants, get on radio and TV, find ways to inform the public, teach moderation, but taking the option away from people doesn't teach them anything and they will fall for the same "trap" the next time if comes around. We can't continue to be reactive. "Teach a man to fish . . ." and all that.

    I guess I'm just a crazy liberal that believes people can and want to empower themselves with the right tools.

  24. knitwit says:

    @Happy Net and Jennifer

    We are talking about CHILDREN, especially young children. What CHOICE do they have against a billion dollar industry that pays millions to psychologists to tall them how to affect the minds of young children?

    YOU may be an informed and diligent parent, but the job of government is to protect public health for everyone. Your child may not be obese, but there, nevertheless, is an epidemic of childhood obesity and it corresponds to unlimited marketing and availability of food. Personal anecdotes are not helpful. My children are not affected as much because I don't even have television and I am able to stay home and prepare all of our food. I have the time to talk with my children and the time to keep up with research and commentary. It would be foolish o f me to think that that is everyone's situation. We must work together for the greatest good of the greatest number; otherwise we will pay down the road in higher medical costs, loss of productivity, to say nothing of human suffering.

    As can be seen with the current economic situation, legislation is the only way to curtail the greed of corporations whose only goal is to incessantly increase profits to shareholders. If we left child labor to the "choice" of factory owners, we would still have six-year-olds in sweatshops–as indeed we have in other parts of the world that do not legislate and enforce those regulations.

    Tell me, who would suffer if children no longer could be made to want silly little plastic toys that come with junk food? What "choice" is being given up? If you want to talk personal responsibility, how about being responsible enough to turn off (or throw out) the TV and cook healthy food for your children? I don't see that happening for the majority, so the least that seems reasonable is to limit MARKETING. The legislation under discussion is not about banning toys or foods, just restricting marketing and separating toys from food. How is a child to be harmed by this? It seems the "choice" you refer to is your own choice to be a willing target of such dishonorable marketing strategies.

    @Anonymous

    Thanks for your support and good luck with your situation if you are describing yourself. It's a tough time out there for hardworking, busy parents trying to do the right thing. The marketers take full advantage of this.

    @whoever wrote about ignorance being the problem.

    Yes, ignorance is a huge problem and that is why those who are not so ignorant are wrong to protest legislation that will work in favor of the children of the ignorant. It will take a generation or more, even with optimal intention and intervention, to do anything about the ignorance; in the meantime we must do what we can to protect the health of children who did not ask to be born to ignorant parents.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Really all I see here is a prime example of lazy parenting…I mean really, last time I knew the adults were supposed to be driving the cars. Say "No" and hit the gas for crying out loud. This is getting way out of hand. Our children first and foremost are to respect their elders. I was raised that way, my mother and father were raised that way and all my family before me. And guess what, not one person robbed and bank or killed someone. My children are taught first that when I say "No" I mean "No". And as a parent of two very well adjusted little people, if I have to tell the a thousand times, guess what IT'S MY JOB not anyone elses and I wouldn't even dream of FORCING people to make MY JOB easier. The world is no different then when I was a kid but I had RESPECT for my parents and I did what I was told or I was disciplined accordingly. I thank God everyday they raised my like they did, because I am a down to earth, independent person because of their Neutral Parenting. I say neutral, because they did let me be me but I had to respect others while doing it. Some where between then and now we lost it. My generation is killing our kids with love, kindness and equality. Yes children have to recognized but the certainly do not rule the roost. Yes children can be heard, but their voice is nowhere near bigger then yours. This attitude of emptying the livingroom instead of teaching "No Touch" is filling our jails with disrespectful people and creating a world of bullies. Well, you can guarantee that my kids WILL NOT be part of YOUR ideal Child.

  26. Anonymous says:

    OK, I really didn't want to come out and say it, but – some of y'all are really stupid. This has nothing to do with weak parenting skills. As a matter of fact removing a potential health risk to children should be on the forefront of every parent if not every adult should be admired. Especially when taking on the likes of international companies.

    Side note: Me and my 10 year old sat at a computer and looked up the ingredients contained within a granola bar. She looked up 3 or 4 then said, "Daddy, look at this! They said this causes cancer in mice. Why would they put that in our food." I then explained to her the concept of plausible deny-ability. What kind of parent would I be if I didn't fight for healthy food and healthy children?

    This also has nothing to do with the curtailment of freedom of choice. It's about creating an enviroment where kids are allowed to grow without outside influences that will damage their health.

    People – put down the kool-aide!

  27. Anonymous says:

    Anonymous said…

    OK, I really didn't want to come out and say it, but – some of y'all are really stupid. This has nothing to do with weak parenting skills. As a matter of fact removing a potential health risk to children should be on the forefront of every parent if not every adult should be admired. Especially when taking on the likes of international companies.
    —————————-
    Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize that teaching your children about restraint and moderation was not part of your parenting. It certainly is with my kids.

    It's none of anyone's business what I eat and what my children eat when they are adults. But the last I looked, my 8 year DOES NOT control my wallet. If you let your kids pull money out of your purse, THAT'S YOUR FAULT! If you let your kids drag your but into the store and demand that you buy them a Happy Meal, THAT'S YOUR FAULT! If you never explain to your children that you must make healthy choices in what you eat and that Mcdonald's is a treat and nothing more, THAT'S YOUR FAULT! Me and my family will not pay for you being a bad parent and not informing your children properly. Shame on anyone who teaches their children how to bully others into getting what they want. You have a right to NOT eat there if you find it unhealthy, and you have a right not to let your children eat there. But don't you dare try to presume that what you feel, is how everyone feels. Your right that this is about how marketing to children affects them, but what it really should be about is how parents refusing to explain the realities of marketing affects children. Small children do not have the mind to make these informed decisions. YOUR ARE THE ADUL, THE BIG PERSON, THE PARENT. Do your job and step up. Don't look to the government to raise your kids and DON'T look to me or anyone else to PAY BECAUSE YOU SCREWED UP.

  28. Anonymous says:

    I don't know about anyone else, but with my kids, I have to take the toy away in order to get them to eat anyone. They only want the toy. Not the food. So really I'm out 3.00. OMG Call the National Guard.

  29. Anonymous says:

    oops anyone=anything

  30. Anonymous says:

    Blogger Lisa @ Corporate Babysitter said…

    Trolls and kneejerk reactions aside, here's a thought: Since companies can deduct their advertising expenses from their taxes, *my* tax dollars essentially subsidize McDonald's marketing. So maybe I do have a say in how they market and who they market to — since I help pay for it.

    —————————–
    Here's another thought….my tax dollars subsidized private schools, my kids aren't priviledged enough to go there so why should I pay for it. My tax dollars pay for buildings I will never in my life go in or roads I will never in my life travel on…So why should I pay for it. You know why I do, because you do. You work in that building, you travel on that road and your kids attend that private school. I am told that I must pay taxes. Once all the money goes into the pot I don't actually know what part of my dollars goes where so I never use it as a weapon. Taxes are guaranteed and will always be there so your complaint is unwarrented.

  31. Franchise UK says:

    A great article, I think Santa Clara are certainly doing the right thing and it is these communal pressures which will force these strategies into a better and healthier position. Hopefully the change is consistently effective.

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