Thanks to the new regulation, any restaurant that includes children toy incentives must now satisfy nutritional guidelines including sodium caps and servings of fruits or veggies.
Childhood obesity is a known problem. Even the beloved Sesame Street character Cookie Monster has turned nutritionally savvy. He feasts primarily on fruit to set a better example for today’s young viewers.
But Joshua Gans at Harvard Business Review thinks the Happy Meal regulation is a big mistake. Literally, it will make people bigger.
On the surface, his logic seems flawed. How could banning Happy Meals in their current state do anything but improve child obesity? Gans argues that competition will take this opportunity to combat the fast food chain and make everything worse than it already is. He concludes that this ban will lead to one of three unfavorable outcomes:
1. McDonald’s sells the same Happy Meals without toys: This will allow other fat-based competitors to step in, grab the attention of children that were once devoted to McDonald’s, and get more sales. Either way, children will keep eating poorly.
2. McDonald’s improves the nutritional value of their Happy Meals: The healthier the product, the less appealing it is to children, even if there is still an alluring toy. Gans writes that the new, improved McDonald’s will be a tougher sell for parents relative to other options with poorer nutritional value.
3. McDonald’s removes the toys and worsens their nutritional value: They’d be competing only based on the bad-nutrition, great-taste factor. With even worse-for-you happy meals, all kids will eat poorly.
Toys are the driving force behind the popularity of Happy Meals. They’ve been a key element in most child-targeted advertising campaigns. Perhaps their power can be used for good, instead of evil.
Gans suggests a solution: “Parents could use the toys to reduce the actual amount of bad stuff that the children eat when they go to McDonald’s (relative to the competition). They allow a parent to increase the value of healthier products in the eyes of children and negotiate a better price (perhaps in the form of better food at home) for allowing their children to have them. Happy Meals do have carrots after all.”
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