McDonald’s Follies

A decade ago, Disney terminated the brand collaboration it had shared with McDonald’s, and some say that was the beginning of the end. Unwilling to be identified as childhood obesity villains, other allies have also abandoned ship since then.

Last year, McDonald’s suffered its first full-year sales decline in 30 years, and also lost the title it had held for 25 years of fast-food chain with the most “kid appeal.” As the investing website put it, the golden-arched behemoth “lost its grip on the most important customer base — kids.”

This sad fate serves the corporation right for being so explicit about its desire to turn every child into a fast-food addict. The present-day spokespeople proudly quote founder Ray Kroc, who said, “If you have one dollar to spend on marketing, spend it on kids.”

That it occurred to anyone to give children toys as a reward for eating low-quality food, is a sad commentary on human decadence. School administrators had tried to unlock the magic formula that would persuade kids to eat more healthful cafeteria items, but not until McDonald’s demonstrated the effectiveness of the Happy Meal, did the education system taste victory.

The story is:

A new study from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that children were more than 300 percent more likely to choose healthy meals in the school lunch line when they were offered with toys and prizes.

“A two-tiered approach of emoticons followed by small prizes as an incentive for healthful food selections is very effective in increasing plain white milk, fruit and vegetable selection,” reported the study.

This discovery had been foreshadowed by a 2012 experiment designed to encourage apple consumption. Cornell University manipulated the fare in a children’s lunch room by applying stickers of the cartoon character Elmo to apples, which caused twice as many children to choose them.

Mere weeks ago, McDonald’s bought 29 million gaudy plastic wristband fitness trackers intending to include them, instead of toys, with Happy Meals until the supply ran out. They were almost immediately recalled, after more than 70 reports were filed with the Consumer Product Safety Commission on behalf of kids who experienced skin irritations. The corporation encouraged anyone who had one of the gadgets to return it in exchange for “a yogurt tube or a bag of apple slices.”

As the world’s largest toy distributor, McDonald’s has made bad decisions before about what to include in a Happy Meal. James Joiner writing for The Daily Beast reminded readers of 2010’s cartoon-character-themed drinking glasses that contained carcinogenic cadmium. In 2014, Hello Kitty toys presented a choking hazard, and a Minions toy distributed last year reportedly said cuss words.

Regarding the wristband debacle, journalist Rod Chester expressed compassion mixed with tough love:

Perhaps McDonald’s should be praised for linking fast food to the need for exercise with a free activity tracker.

But if they really want to take a step forward, it’s time to make a change.

Ditch the toy and drop the Happy Meal. Unlike a rash on the arm, that’s one way that will irritate kids but will be good for them in the long run.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “How McDonald’s Lost Its Most Important Customer,”, 02/02/15
Source: “Want your kids to eat healthy? Make their meals like McDonald’s,”, 04/28/15
Source: “McDonald’s attempt to make Happy Meals seem healthy just massively backfired,”, 08/23/16
Source: “McDonalds Is Using Your Kids To Survive,”, 08/19/16
Source: “Maccas, just get rid of your crappy Happy Meals,”, 08/22/16
Photo credit (exit sign): JeepersMedia via Visualhunt/CC BY
Photo credit: See-ming Lee via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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