The XX Factor

A Happy Meal Without a Toy is Like a Fish Without a Bicycle

Amanda , I have plenty of issues with the CSPI’s lawsuit (or, at the point, its notice of intent to file a lawsuit). On balance, I think Neela is right-it’s not the toys, it’s the food. The carefully engineered food, with its balance of sweet-salty, its umami, its mouth feel, and its chemically injected taste of smoke and grill. It’s designed to lure us in, and it’s backed by an elaborate system behind the food which conspires to convince us that it’s reasonable to expect to pay $3.99 for a third of a pound of “Angus” beef on a fat crusty bun with slices of red onion, juicy tomato, and crisp lettuce. We eat fast food because it’s cheaper and tastier than the real thing. The toy in the Happy Meal isn’t bringing families to McDonald’s who would otherwise be eating a veggie lasagna at home. It’s encouraging families to choose McDonald’s over Burger King.

Like Rachael , I’m angered by the infantilizing of parents (and the implied suggestion that parents should look for assistance from the courts or the government in teaching their kids that McDonald’s, and many other things, are “sometime foods”). But mostly I’m infuriated by the foolishness of attempting to file a lawsuit over toys, when the toys are so far from the real problem. As I said in my last post, I question whether the law is meant for this. I can’t see the connection to deceptive practices without a real stretching of the meaning and intent behind consumer protection legislation, and when we use a good law for a foolish purpose, it makes it less likely that we’ll be able to pass more laws.

But I’m even more outraged by the way we fool ourselves into thinking that something like a lawsuit over cheap plastic toys will actually represent some form of progress in the struggle against obesity. We’re fat, as a nation, because our easiest and cheapest options for eating are overwhelmingly things that we weren’t meant to eat constantly, and because the prices of foods like Happy Meals and Angus burgers are kept artificially low by corn subsidies and our willingness to allow companies to employ millions of people for something that’s not a living-wage. Sure, offering a toy with your cheeseburger and fries is an incentive in the wrong direction, but most kids will still welcome the fries without the toy-and I’d note that you can get the toy with a reasonably healthy meal like a plain burger, milk, and apple slices, too. Suing McDonald’s over toys in Happy Meals isn’t thinking big about reducing obesity. It’s nothing more than another way to avoid thinking about the real problems at all.

Photograph by David McNew/Getty Images.