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CSPI files suit vs. McD Happy Meals

The Center for Science in the Public Interest followed through this week on earlier threats to sue McDonald’s Corp. for deceptive marketing practices that target children. The Washington, D.C.-based consumer group helped Monet Parham, a mother of two from Sacramento, Calif., file a class action lawsuit in California Superior Court in San Francisco against the burger giant.

CSPI first warned McDonald’s in June that it would sue the Oak Brook, Ill.-based brand to halt its marketing practices. The group filed a lawsuit previously against a quick-service chain when it sued KFC in 2006 to halt its use of partially hydrogenated oils, a source of trans fat in foods. The litigation was dropped when KFC agreed to phase out those oils.

The plaintiff in the current suit, Parham, said McDonald’s use of toys for marketing purposes caused her two children to request trips to the chain constantly until she took them there for Happy Meals, which she claims lack satisfactory nutritional standards.

“I am concerned about the health of my children and feel that McDonald’s should be a very limited part of their diet and their childhood experience,” Parham said. “But as other busy, working moms and dads know, we have to say ‘no’ to our young children so many times, and McDonald’s makes that so much harder to do.”

She added that she “[objects] to the fact that McDonald’s is getting into my kids’ heads without my permission and actually changing what my kids want to eat” through the brand’s use of Happy Meal toys.

“What kids see as a fun toy, I now realize is a sophisticated, high-tech marketing scheme that’s designed to put McDonald’s between me and my daughters,” she said. “For the sake of other parents and their children, I want McDonald’s to stop interfering with my family.”

McDonald’s responded in a statement, saying: “We are proud of our Happy Meals and intend to vigorously defend our brand, our reputation and our food. We stand on our 30-year track record of providing a fun experience for kids and families at McDonald’s. We listen to our customers, and parents consistently tell us they approve of our Happy Meals. We are confident that parents understand and appreciate that Happy Meals are a fun treat, with quality, right-sized food choices for their children that can fit into a balanced diet.”

Industry observers advised McDonald’s — already the target of a restaurant toy ban enacted this fall in San Francisco — against matching CSPI’s rhetoric or volume in order to avoid giving the group more exposure for its lawsuit and pressure campaigns.

Gary Stibel, chief executive of Westport, Conn.-based New England Consulting Group, said McDonald’s “should sit back and let the consumer cast their vote” rather than engaging with CSPI in a high-profile public-relations campaign.

“In our judgment, the best thing for McDonald’s to do is to let the suit play out of its own volition,” Stibel said. “This is like New Coke, where the more somebody tried to change something about a brand people loved, the more people were willing to support [the old brand]. McDonald’s is an even bigger brand that parents and kids love, so groups like CSPI that try to cause pain to something that parents and their kids love will only reinforce that feeling.”

Stibel said most parents agree that they hold the ultimate responsibility for their children’s health, and the small segment of people blaming restaurants like McDonald’s would be hard-pressed to convince them.

“There’s a much larger segment that believes it’s the parents’ responsibility to have a happy kid,” Stibel said. “Among other things, Happy Meals make that easier. … Parents are constantly forced to tell kids, ‘Do this, don’t do that,’ and they and their kids deserve a break from that, and McDonald’s gives them one.”

McDonald’s has approximately 14,000 restaurants in the United States.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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