Consumer Group Sues McDonald's Over Happy Meal Toys

The promise of the latest toy is a big allure for kids at McDonald's
The promise of the latest toy is a big allure for kids at McDonald's David Paul Morris/Getty Images

A well-known consumer group says McDonald's toy advertising is deceptive and makes kids pester their parents to buy Happy Meals full of too much salt, sugar, fat and calories.

Dear Child In The Back Seat: Your days of whining for the Strawberry Shortcake Happy Meal toy you saw on TV may be numbered. At least in California.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a lawsuit today against McDonald's in state court in California to stop the company from advertising toys with Happy Meals.

It's no sure thing that the consumer group will get its way in court, of course, but the lawsuit ups the pressure on the fast-food chain over the combination of food and toys that appeal to kids. McDonald's defends the meals.

The group filed the class action suit on behalf of parents, including plaintiff Monet Parham, a 41-year-old mother of two from Sacramento who says she's fed up with the pestering.

"Happy meals are among the those things frequently requested, and the first thing they ask me to do is open the toy," Parham said in a press conference today. "I'm really concerned about the health of my children, and I don't think its OK to entice children to get Happy Meals with a toy," she added.

McDonald's didn't immediately return requests for comment about the lawsuit, although it has known that CSPI intended to file a suit since June.

The lawsuit asserts that under California's consumer protection laws, McDonald's toy advertising is deceptive. It targets children under 8 years old who don't have the ability to understand advertising.

"Little kids don't know the difference between a program and a commercial," says CSPI's Executive Director Michael Jacobson. The Institute of Medicine and the Supreme Court have said as much.

But the real concern for the group, and for parents, CSPI says, is that McDonald's advertising makes kids beg their parents to buy food that's high in calories, sugar, fat and salt, which contributes to obesity.

"Marketing to kids is an end-run around parental control," says Stephen Gardner, CSPI's director of litigation.

But CSPI is not asking for damages, just for McDonald's to stop advertising toys.

"This is about the change, not the money," Gardner says.

For its part, McDonald's has added healthier items to its menu in recent years, like apple slices, low-fat milk. But french fries still go into Happy Meals more than 90 percent of the time, Jacobson notes.

McDonald's and other fast food companies spend over half a billion dollars a year on advertising and marketing kids meals -- most of it on toys.

Separately, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors overrode a mayoral veto last month to push ahead with an ordinance that would effectively ban toys from most Happy Meals starting in December 2011.

UPDATE: 12:48pm. McDonald's spokesperson Bridget Coffing issued the following statement. It addresses neither toys nor advertising:

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.

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