San Francisco and the Happy Meal Toy Ban: Justified or Inappropriate?

San Francisco has officially become the first city to outlaw promotional toys traditionally included in McDonald’s Happy Meals. Because of the high fat, sugar and sodium content present in Happy Meals, the San Francisco Board of Directors feels that toys act as an incentive to make poor diet choices. While my opinion is far from that of the Board’s, I’ve outlined each argument below:

Without getting too deep (into a rather controversial subject on its own), childhood obesity is what the San Francisco Board of Directors is aiming to battle. American children are at a constant battle with unhealthy food choices wherever they go, whether it be in the school lunch line or at the fast food joint that appears on every city corner. However, healthy eating must be a lifestyle choice that children and their parents commit to everyday. It goes far beyond the marketing tactics food and beverage companies do to draw kids into their unhealthy food options.

This is where my opinion (and that of many others) comes in:

The decision to purchase a Happy Meal is a decision of the parent. Not the child, the fast food restaurant, or any city’s Board of Directors.

Will a toy ban get kids to eat healthier?

Will a Happy Meal toy ban get kids to eat healthier? I’m not so sure.

The San Francisco Board of Directors is trying to strong arm McDonald’s into re-engineering their calorie content of Happy Meals by taking away the very thing that serves as their Happy Meal “trademark”, the promotional toy. While I agree that the giveaway is a staple for every McDonald’s Happy Meal, I absolutely do not think it plays the primary role of why Happy Meals are purchased in the first place. Parents are purchasing Happy Meals for their children because they provide a quick meal solution to families on the go and are an economical way of feeding young ones. The promotional toys included in the Happy Meal box are just an extra, albeit an extra that is counted on by every Happy Meal purchaser.

Let’s face it – most of these promotional giveaways probably just end up in the trash shortly after they’re removed from their plastic wrappers. Kids are excited to discover their treasure at first but quickly realize that the toy is not going to be one of the most prized possessions, therefore creating no real intrinsic value that would relate the promotional toy with the food included in the Happy Meal.

Shouldn't the focus be on the food and not the marketing effort?

Shouldn’t the focus be on the food and not the marketing effort?

Instead of banning the marketing effort, why not get to the root of the problem and ban the fat content that goes into the food itself? A few US cities and the entire country of Denmark recently took preventative measures by banning trans fats in restaurant foods. Now that seems like a better way to curb childhood obesity and positively influence the eating choices of American families than by forcing fast food chains to remove their staple marketing efforts! What’s next, are outraged Boards of some other city going to outlaw the sexy, brightly-colored packaging on potato chips because it draws kids into purchasing these unhealthy snack options? That would be absurd but I believe an action such as that would be, in essence, doing the same thing as removing the marketing effort in a Happy Meal.

What do YOU think about San Francisco’s ban on Happy Meal toys? Is it an outrage, or should other cities follow their lead?


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  1. Cybernetic SAM

    I completely agree with the arguments in this article. The childhood obesity problem doesn’t solely fall on food establishments, they play partial roll and should take an incentive to become a little healthier (which they have if I am not mistaken they started selling milk and fruit as a choice for happy meals a couple years ago). However these food establishments can only go so far into the health spectrum as they were constructed/created as a means for FAST DIETING and thus quick easy mass produced food= equals cheap almost not real food. Another side argument you could say is; if places like McDonalds took the initiative to be a healthier establishment then it would perhaps change several environmental factors as how they get their meat, range, and process it. But that is an argument for another day.

    The other good point is that toys don’t make children get fat; PARENTS allow their bad decisions and hectic lifestyles to encourage unhealthy diet choices. In fact there was an article written a few years ago that said that a large percentage of children under the age of three recognize McDonald’s logo/Branding before they know their own name. That is sad, but it happened through conditioning on the parents end. DON’T LET FOOD CONTROL YOUR LIFE! I know that is easier said than done, but at this point it is everyman for himself; the choice is up to you and only you. We should start a child friendly fast food mascot not unlike Smokey the bear, like CARL THE FRIENDLY CARROT, slogan: “ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT CHILDHOOD OBESITY!”

  2. QLP Jill

    I completely agree with you, Shannon! The problem doesn’t lie with the toys, it lies with the food itself. Yes, at first glance it seems like a Happy Meal toy is “rewarding” a child for eating junk food, but most parents would buy the meals for their children regardless of the toy’s inclusion. As you pointed out, it’s a cheap and fast option for people who don’t have a lot of time or money to spare. If you don’t want kids to eat unhealthy food, then don’t buy them unhealthy food – toy or no toy. It’s as simple as that!

    This is just another example of passing the blame, and it’s unfortunate. Maybe someday affordable, healthy food options will be readily available and kids will actually WANT to eat them!

  3. Bret Bonnet


    First off, let me start out by staying, I’ve been a chronic fat kid all my life. It’s in my genes and I’ve learned to live with it. Do I exercise regularly – NO. Do I eat healthy – ON OCCASION.

    Case closed.

    … What I’m trying to get at is the toy in the Happy Meal has NOTHING to do with our food choices. My parent’s growing up NEVER let me eat at McDonald’s. Why? Because we either brown bagged lunch anytime a fast food restaurant would have been a more convenient option (thanks mom!) or we always had a home cooked meal when I got home from school (yes both my parents worked F/T). Was it a life style choice? Yes. Was it because we wanted to eat healthy? No. We were POOR! In other words, you make the choice to eat at McDonald’s. Toy or no toy…

    From what I’ve heard about this topic, McDonald’s didn’t try too hard to stop the Board of Directions from passing this ruling as I think they were even aware the TOY is not the problem, and excluding the toy from future Happy Meals will NOT hurt their sales. Reengineering the contents of their menu (eliminating trans fat as Shannon mentioned in her article) would be far more expensive and difficult of a task so I’m sure McDonald’s thinks they got off easy on this one, despite how absurd it is.

    Stop making excuses for being fat. Start eating and exercising or shut up. Everyone (for the most part) is fat because of a life style choice; if you’re not happy – take steps to correct.

    I love fat people! 🙂

    … Or to be P.C. “Pleasantly Plump”! 🙂

    PS. What’s next… is my city government going to tell me when I can and can NOT water my lawn… Wait, they already do! 🙂

  4. JJ "Suite G"

    It’s definitely an intricate debate, and I happen to disagree with the Board’s decision as well. If their aim is to dissuade families from becoming evermore dependent on fast food, they’re going about it the wrong way. Sure, they’ll put a pretty little dent in the bay area’s overall Happy Meal sales, but lazy parents will always fall back on the early morning and mid-afternoon drive-thru option for a kids’ meal–perhaps now at the local BK, which has better toys anyway.

    The real crime here is that a bunch of bigwigs can’t resist pissing on a cherished trademark of American youth. Removing the toy from the Happy Meal is essentially removing the “happy” from the meal. They might as well call it a “Miserable Meal” now.

    The Times They Are A-Changin’

    • Stantz

      You should’ve gone with “Crappy Meal” instead of “Miserable Meal.” ^_^

  5. Andrew Sauer

    I definitely agree with all of the comments above. If you have not already, I suggest watching Super Size Me. That film makes you think again about the fastfood industry.

  6. Daniel

    great post, thanks for sharing

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