As you may have noticed, recently there’s been some controversy over McDonald’s Happy Meal toys: in November 2010 San Francisco passed legislation banning toys in kids meals that do not meet certain nutritional standards and in December a woman is suing McDonald’s outright in an attempt to force them to stop including toys in the meals altogether.

Even if, like me, you’re not a big fan of McDonald’s or fast food, on the surface it all seems somewhat harmless. Kids love McDonalds, the food is tasty, they get a fun toy, and it’s an easy win for parents in the long, arduous battle of child-rearing. However, given the powerful allure of toys, McDonald’s perhaps has more responsibility to feed children healthy meals. The counter argument is that 1. it’s a free market and government has no right to intervene, and 2. that McDonald’s can’t be blamed because the caretaking of children is ultimately the parents’ responsibility. However, after reading two revelatory books that deconstruct fast food culture and the obesity crisis (Fast Food Nation and The End of Overeating) the problem is a lot more insidious than most people realize.

Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation looks at the history of fast food, dissecting each element of the industry including horrendous slaughterhouse conditions and the abuse of illegal immigrants; but what concerns this discussion is his overview of fast food marketing tactics, especially those towards children. According to Schlosser’s research, children’s marketing in general operates on the principal that “a person’s ‘brand loyalty’ may begin as early as the age of two,” and the goal is to reach children as early as possible through “cradle-to-grave advertising strategies.” This is done through creating a relationship with children built on trust and positive emotion through language and visualizations that speak to them. Certainly McDonald’s, with it’s bold colors, silly characters, toys and fun Play Lands, targets children in such a manner.

As previously noted, toys are a fantastic strategy to reach children, and in doing so the parents are reached, whether they like it or not. A toy not only encourages children to whine to their parents, it gives them “a specific reason to ask for the product,” according to the magazine Selling to Kids, such as “but I’ll be the only one who doesn’t have it and I’ll get made fun of.” Getting children to pester their parents is inherent to the marketing strategy, effectively turning children into brand advocates. McDonald’s claims on their kids’ website that “we’re committed to offering your family wholesome choices and an experience you can share,” but rather than using a unifying marketing tool they use a divisive one that creates friction between children and their parents who want to feed their children healthy food.

Because fast food isn’t healthy. Period. If McDonald’s were selling Happy Meals filled with vegetables and whole grains there wouldn’t be much of a debate as to whether it is ethical to lure them with toys. Supposedly “Happy Meals are a fun treat, with quality, right-sized food choices for their children that can fit into a balanced diet,” says McDonald’s spokeswoman Bridget Coffing in a recent CNN article regarding the lawsuit. However, the book The End of Overeating by Dr. David A. Kessler, former FDA Commissioner, offers extensive and compelling research proving that fast food companies have something quite opposite in mind.

The book answers the questions we all have about overeating, namely why do we do it and how do we stop, and in doing so he analyzes fast food product creation strategies. It would seem that the aforementioned “cradle-to-grave” marketing strategy extends far beyond TV ads and silly characters; the food itself is literally engineered to be as addictive as possible. Fast food companies have created food products that are, what Kessler terms, “highly palatable,” and stimulate our pleasure receptors much like drugs. These products are created by layering the three main taste components – sugar, fat and salt – in ingenious ways (such as adding high fructose corn syrup to burger buns) to ensure the highest level of taste satisfaction, which after repeated exposure results, much like drugs, in addiction.

Part of the problem is that while we were all thoroughly engaged in devouring our Big Macs ­– layered with meat (fat and salt), cheese (fat and salt), special sauce (sugar, fat and salt), and white bread (sugar in the form of simple carbohydrates and high fructose corn syrup) – we missed the fact that most fast food can really only be referred to as “processed food products,” having been conceived in a lab, created in a factory and then reconstituted from powers or thawed and reheated. Even more disturbing, “along with sugar, fat and salt, much of the processed food we eat today relies heavily on chemical flavor,” meaning that those delicious Big Macs aren’t even genuinely delicious, just a conglomeration of enticing chemicals masquerading as food.

It turns out that the entire fast food experience is a totally fake: empty calories engineered to be as delicious and addictive as possible, then marketed in the most alluring way possible. This process has been likened to marketing tobacco, alcohol or even drugs to children. What’s worse is that also like drugs and alcohol, eating these food products literally rewires your brain, reinforcing addictive behavior. And we’re feeding it to our children.

People might say that it’s a matter of personal choice to indulge in fast food, but the problem I have with all this is that children, in general, do not possess the ability to make informed decisions at the level necessary to recognize the fast food ruse. If adults make poor choices about their health there’s only so much we can do to prevent it. However, I would question whether or not their current behavior is not somehow influenced by literally a lifetime of conditioning to trust fast food companies and associate the food with fond childhood memories.

The fact that there is a serious childhood obesity crisis demands that children be further protected from food-related harms, and there needs to be a recognition that fast food is harmful to if not everyone, at least children. I personally believe that it is unethical to market fast food to children, just as it is unethical to market other substances that can do serious bodily harm such as alcohol and tobacco. However, I also believe that it is extremely unlikely that it will stop completely. The least we can do is stop giving children the ultimate incentive to eat at these establishments: free toys.

Rachel Smith is a marketing and design professional in New York City. She graduated from the SPS BA in Communications and Culture in 2009. Currently she is a founding member of the Alumni Relations Council and By Laws Task Force. Rachel loved the BA program which inspired her to work towards fostering community and collaboration among Alumni at SPS.

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