Consumer Group Sues McDonald's Over Happy Meal Toys

Follows Through on Warning to Take on Fast-Food Giant's Child-Focused Marketing

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Following through on a threat made in June, consumer group the Center for Science in the Public Interest today filed a class action lawsuit against McDonald's Corp., aimed at stopping McDonald's use of toys to market directly to children.

CSPI in June had served McDonald's a notice of its intent to sue. The letter, addressed to Jim Skinner, vice chairman-CEO of McDonald's Corp., and Jan Fields, president of McDonald's USA, charged that by advertising Happy Meals that include toys, McDonald's "unfairly and deceptively markets directly to children. When McDonald's bombards children with advertisements or other marketing for Happy Meals with toys, many children will pester their parents to take them to McDonald's. Once there, they are more than likely to receive a meal that is too high in calories, saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium, and devoid of whole grains."

"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," said McDonald's spokeswoman Bridget Coffing in an email to Ad Age. "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."

CSPI filed the lawsuit in California Superior Court in San Francisco on behalf of Monet Parham, a mother of two from Sacramento. "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," Ms. Parham said in a statement. "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. I object to the fact that McDonald's is getting into my kids' heads without my permission and actually changing what my kids want to eat."

Ms. Parham said the main reason her 6-year-old daughter, Maya, asks to go to McDonald's is to get toys based on Barbie, i-Carly, Shrek or Strawberry Shortcake. "The food seems almost beside the point to the kids, she added, because the toy monopolizes the attention of Maya and her 2-year-old sister, Lauryn.

McDonald's Happy Meal ads of late tout its healthier options such as milk and its side dish Apple Dippers, which are sliced apples accompanied by a low-fat caramel dip. McDonald's has been upping its U.S. measured media spending on Happy Meal, according to WPP's Kantar Media. In the first half of 2010, the fast feeder has spent $44.6 million on the product. In 2009, it spent $69.5 million, compared with $65.3 million in 2008.

McDonald's, along with many other fast feeders including Burger King and Wendy's , in recent months had been the target of a study by Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, which said that fast feeders were marketing to children now more than ever. McDonald's was also used as an example in recent rulings in San Francisco restricting the inclusion of toys in kids' meals unless certain nutrition criteria were met.

CSPI has gone after fast feeders before. CSPI in 2006 sued Yum Brands' KFC for using partially hydrogenated oil, which CSPI said made KFC's chicken high in trans fat. CSPI dropped that lawsuit when the company agreed to eliminate partially hydrogenated oils.

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