McDonald’s — More Little Histories

Dr. Pretlow quotes a comment that appeared on his website Weigh2Rock in reference to former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program. The comment was from a 14-year-old girl who weighed 230 pounds:

There are actually alot of activities in my school, like intramural sports and i was in them, didn’t help a smidge. And there ARE healthy affordable foods where i live, it doesn’t mean that we buy them. I don’t think she has thought about the fact that there are multiple mcdonalds in every town. For years people have had programs and activities to help obese people and it hasn’t really helped. There are many holes in this plan.

In 2019, the Happy Meal turned 40, and the corporation celebrated the occasion by bringing back 17 of the most popular toys that had been part of every Happy Meal. McDonald’s is one of the few companies that can claim to have created memories for “billions of families annually across the world” — and don’t they know it!

A top McDonald’s exec, Colin Mitchell, said in a press release,

Parents tell us how fondly they recall their favorite toys. So, unboxing the Surprise Happy Meal together creates a real moment of bonding with their children. We hope these toys are something that they will treasure and remember.

Journalist Emily Heil quoted marketing expert Jennifer Harris:

Their marketing position is that if you love your child, you’ll take them…

The drawing power of the Happy Meal depends mainly on the appeal of novelty, from the children’s point of view. From the parents’ perspective, it is part nostalgia for their own childhoods, and part emotional blackmail. In the guilt department, working mothers are a particularly easy mark. They are all about creating blissful memories, in the hopes of having lovely photos to scrapbook, in the misty future, if they ever have time. These and other motivations were studied by Prof. John Stanton, who still teaches food marketing at St. Joseph’s University.

Additionally, some parents also suffer from guilt over the fact that a Happy Meal is not, let’s face it, the optimum nutritional experience for a child. When the toys were reissued, there had already been many years of controversy.

Here is Emily Heil again:

In 2002, two Bronx teenagers filed a class-action lawsuit claiming that the chain’s food, including Happy Meals, had contributed to their obesity. The case was eventually dismissed. Other legal challenges include a 2010 California lawsuit that sought to stop the company from giving away toys, which plaintiffs claimed were used to lure children into eating unhealthy food. That was ultimately tossed, too.

The city of San Francisco in 2011 imposed an ordinance banning fast-food restaurants from offering free toys. But the wily Golden Arches got around the rule by tacking on a 10-cent surcharge for the plaything.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Happy Meal, a triumph of marketing blamed for childhood obesity, is turning 40,”, 11/6/19
Image by Aranami/CC BY 2.0

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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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