Who Put McDonald’s in Charge of Kids’ Health?

When McDonald’s sneezes, the media jumps. Such was the case yesterday when the company announced it was giving the Happy Meal a makeover. Well not really, but that’s how it got reported, because the media loves simple stories. But when it comes to marketing and PR by multinational corporations, nothing is ever that simple.

While my colleagues have done a great job of explaining why nutritionally, this move is little more than PR (see Marion Nestle and Andy Bellatti), missing from the analysis so far is this: what McDonald’s really wants is to remain in charge.

The fast food giant’s motivation beyond the obvious positive PR spin is to stave off more laws like the one passed in San Francisco to set nutrition standards for Happy Meals, not to mention lawsuits like the one filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest based on deceptive marketing.

No doubt McDonald’s is gearing up to challenge the San Francisco ordinance in court the minute it goes in effect later this year. A similar bill has been proposed New York City while other localities wait to see the legal outcome. Now, McDonald’s gets to claim to any lawmaker or judge who will listen: “We don’t need no stinking laws, we got it covered with our new and improved Happy Meals. We got the message loud and clear, so now we’re cleaning up act all on our own. Nothing to see here, move along.”

As I explained in my book, Big Food announcements of improved corporate behavior are for two reasons only: positive PR and staving off government regulation (and in this case, more litigation).

While the former is more obvious, the latter should cause you to ask: Who is in charge here? McDonald’s ultimate goal is to make as little change as possible to get media attention (and praise from the likes of the first lady), while distracting policymakers from doing its job setting the boundaries of corporate behavior.

One argument I often hear about why we should praise these sort of industry moves is that “it’s a step in the right direction.” But in what direction exactly? A direction in which McDonald’s and friends continue to get to call all the shots for how we eat and how our children are marketed to? What is the end game in a world where we accept “incremental change” from corporations who answer only to shareholders? Somehow I don’t see that in 200 more steps Happy Meal boxes will morph into CSA boxes full of fresh, local produce.

Rather than praise corporations like McDonald’s for such meaningless and most likely temporary “improvements” let’s call them out for the distractions they are. We can at least celebrate that years of advocacy efforts to curb marketing to children is causing McDonald’s to take notice, as lame as it is.

Then let’s get back to the much harder job of policy change: to convince our democratically-elected leaders (or judges if that’s what it takes) that McDonald’s should not be allowed to market to children, period. No matter how many ounces of French fries or apple slices Happy Meals contain.




20 Responses to “Who Put McDonald’s in Charge of Kids’ Health?”

  1. While I agree that marketing to kids is a disaster, and that the actual change is nutritionally insignificant, the main point I have taken from the happy meal story is that public pressure leads to change. however small it may be.

    We, the public, need to increase pressure in order to make bigger changes happen in the food industry.

  2. Seth says:

    Hi Michele. One thing I wonder when reading your posts about industry practices and marketing—what does success look like? That is, assuming McDonald’s and other similar companies are still doing business in the future, what’s in bounds and what’s out of bounds? In terms of what goes on the menu and how it’s marketed. What are the policy remedies and how will that change corporate behavior for better health?

    • Michele says:

      Seth, I gave the prescription for this problem: stop marketing to kids. As for the bigger picture, I suggest reading the last chapter in my book.

    • Dana Woldow says:

      Seth, I’m willing to take a crack at defining what success looks like. How about, a few years down the road, McDonald’s are still in business, but they no longer offer meals aimed directly at kids? Already McD is finding parents eschewing the Crappy Meal and instead ordering a couple of things off the $1 menu and dividing it up among their kids, because it’s cheaper. Why not just offer the food, even in the traditional “bundles”, but not make a bundle aimed at kids, complete with extra (wasteful) eye catching packaging and, of course, The Toy? Parents could still take the kids to the Golden Arches if they wish; they could still buy them all the junk their wallet allows, but no pressure from the kids to go there just to get a cheap trinket.

      I don’t think fast food can be legislated out of existence (and I say that as someone who participated in the effort in San Francisco to impose nutritional requirements on meals that come with prizes); I don’t think a Crappy Meal will ever morph into a CSA box. Just quit luring kids in with “fun” meal boxes and a toy.

  3. Andrew says:

    Excellent piece. As much as I applaud Macs for even the slightest move forward they could have started, as they do in Europe with cage free eggs and organic milk and fruit. Seems we in the US are second rate citizens? I agree whole heatedly sometimes Doctors and parents know so much better than companies about real health, because there target is healthy kids not healthy profits.

  4. Sarah says:

    I understand and appreciate a lot of what you say in your article, but when you ask, “Who’s in charge here?” I say, “I am in charge!” I, as a consumer, choose not to give my money and business to places like McDonald’s. I, as a parent, choose not to take my kids to places that use toys and highly processed foods as lures…and I teach them exactly why fast food joints market their products in this manner. Consumer activism is way stronger than our political system.

  5. Tom says:

    I have a better article title “Who put liberals in charge of parental decisions?” You’re all a bunch of arrogant simple minds, who ignore the most basics of commonsense in order to bolster your delusions of self-righteousness.
    Children aren’t “lured” into McDonalds, parents decide. Parents get to decide what their children eat. Parents decide what to buy at the grocery store. Children don’t have the means to purchase happy meals, or ice cream or cookies, parents do. if I choose to feed my child a happy meal I will, just as i choose to feed them good healthy home cooked meals 99.99% of the time.
    I realize this may come as a surprise to you people, but McDonalds is not a health food provider! They are a business, and businesses remain in business when they respond to consumer demand. When McDonalds consumers demand CSA, organic vegetable filled happy meals with toys, McDonalds will provide it happily and profit. But that’s not what consumers want from McDonalds, they want inexpensive, good tasting, unhealthy, fast food. And guess what? Because we live in a free society you can decide not to go there.
    Does it ever occur to you bleeding hearts why there isn’t a worldwide healthy fast food chain? Because there’s supermarkets and farm stands and farmers markets for healthy food!
    You people are the reason for this non-story story. McDonalds has had these healthier fruit, low fat dairy options in happy meals for years. Continue to pat your socially conscious, activist, selves on the back for doing nothing but showing the rest of us how utterly delusional and ridiculous the liberal mind is.

    • Dana Woldow says:

      If you think advertising to kids does not lure them to fast food, then why does the fast food industry spend $3 billion a year in advertising directly to children?

    • Andrew says:

      Are you seriously saying every parent has all the knowledge?? We have to have independent commentary in decisions that affect our health.

      Ask fast food restaurants to stop marketing to children? Please let us know the reply. Every retailer in the world knows the value of pester power. And while you are at ask if they will put the information about the chemicals sprayed on the fruit and veg they sell as well as the pictures of the feedlots and confinement housing there meat is produced in? Then maybe folks wouldn’t eat there. Good decisions are based on an understanding of the facts. So lets get those facts up to help everyone make an INFORMED decision.

      The reason there isn’t a healthy fast food chain is two fold, one healthy food doesn’t make a corporation rich, and we are programed to crave the very unhealthy ingredients in the food. After all we are just very bright, or maybe no so bright animals.

      And I promise you I am a capitalist.

  6. [...] steps” that are more about the company looking good than actually improving nutrition. And Michelle Simon points out that the real question is not how many apple slices kids get, but whether [...]

  7. [...] Who Put McDonald’s in Charge of Kids’ Health? July 29, 2011 Posted by rogerhollander in Health. Tags: childrens health, food industry, happy meal, health, marion nestle, mcdonalds, michele simon, nutrition, roger hollander trackback Published on Thursday, July 28, 2011 by Appetite for Profit [...]

  8. Terry says:


    What does all the name-calling get you? There are millions of low-income families living in food deserts whose only food is from convenience stores and fast food chains. I don’t have a problem with fast food. I do have a problem when these establishments offer nothing but “junk” food. What/who does it hurt if apples, bananas, and milk are an additional offering? I do, however, have a problem when an increasingly large amount of my tax money has to be spent when the resulting medical bills come due to take care of the health problems these millions of families suffer. A little bit of compassion, please.

  9. Aaron says:

    Providing free healthcare is only going to further disconnect those folks from the risks associated with their poor eating decisions. Using healthcare as an excuse for dictating a diet to people merely exposes the underlying tyranny of those who do the dictating.

    I eat well, raise and sell grassfed meats, and my daughter didn’t know chicken nuggets were on a menu til she could read. That said, self reachous attitudes like these make want to double fist a large order of McD’s fries with a hash brown chaser.

  10. Janet Camp says:


    There is nothing self-righteous (I think that’s what you meant by “reachous”) about not wanting to have the whole country paying for healthcare (whether or not said health care is publicly funded–and it may or may not be) for the resulting diabetes epidemic brought on by a fast-food culture. It isn’t just poor people, although they are targeted by the advertising and are victims of having no real alternatives. We all pay one way or another, to say nothing of the human suffering of those affected.

    What I do or what you do in our personal lives is just not the point. Little children do not have a choice. They eat what is given to them. If their parents don’t know any better, what’s the use of going on about it? We have to make basic changes so that ALL children have access to decent, healthy food. One way to do this is to educate (not much money going to that these days!). Another way is to support policies that encourage the availability of nutritious food to all people.

    My personal commitment to this is to NOT own any stock in any Big Food or Fast Food corporation. There are better ways to invest and I take the time to see that I am not a part of the problem. If nobody invests in these companies they will cease to exist. There is a bit more to it than just “demand”.

  11. [...] to kids.)This is not “progress,” but a public relations victory along with — as Michele Simon points out in her blog — an attempt to short-circuit regulations and laws that have some guts, like the one in San [...]

  12. Sharon Gibson says:

    When Good Morning America breathlessly announced a “big” change coming from McDonald’s I was anticipating a switch from their standard fare to fresh produce (like the ones we see in their commercials, but they’re not really on the premises) and grass fed beef. Now, that would have been change. The lame “move in the right” direction was such a let down.

  13. [...] is not “progress,” but a public relations victory along with — as Michele Simon points out in her blog — an attempt to short-circuit regulations and laws that have some guts, like the one in San [...]

  14. [...]  But then, after thinking about it some more, and reading articles by Bellatti, Nestle, and Simon, I have different [...]

  15. [...] is not “progress,” but a public relations victory along with — as Michele Simon points out in her blog — an attempt to short-circuit regulations and laws that have some guts, like the one in San [...]

  16. [...] policy-makers, and the public,  to ensure they continue to call the shots when it comes to children’s nutrition policy by making misleading promises. Really, McDonald’s is just your neighborhood restaurant [...]

Leave a Reply


Join Email List

Speaking Requests

Media Requests

Contact Michele Simon: michele@eatdrinkpolitics.com


  • 2016 (4)
  • 2015 (20)
  • 2014 (41)
  • 2013 (67)
  • 2012 (70)
  • 2011 (53)
  • 2010 (49)