McDonald’s Launches New Happy Meal Nutritional Advertising

McDonalds New Happy Meal McDonald’s has launched a new campaign targeting kids to introduce the NEW Happy Meal. The Happy Meal has been a staple on the McDonald’s menu since 1979 when it was first introduced to compete with Burger Chef (now Hardees). The inaugural Happy Meals were a hamburger or a cheeseburger, french fries, cookies, soft drink and a toy! Brilliant, as kids would now associate going out for burgers with going and getting a toy and that makes them happy and also entertained. The nutritional aspects of the food was not as scrutinized as it is today as it was fast food and fast food is greasy, messy and all around bad for you but it tastes so damn good. Over the years with obesity rates and other health issues skyrocketing, nutritional values of all foods has been given a closer look.

Is the Happy Meal Healthy?

Well, no one has died from eating one that I am aware of so I guess it is cannot be all that bad. Right? If we look solely and exclusively at the caloric intake from a Happy Meal of a hamburger, fries and soft drink, we round out at about 630 calories. GASP! That is a lot of calories for a kids meal. There are other values to consider when evaluating if something is nutritious such as the carbs, fat, saturated fat and of course the sodium. A review of the nutritional values  indicates that this meal has roughly 630 mg of sodium (more than  1/2 of the daily recommended intake for a child between the ages of 4-8). The new Happy Meal with the apple slices, 1.1 oz fries and milk does bring down the calorie count to around 485 but the sodium increases to over 700mg as there is more sodium in the milk than the kids soda.

So, is the new Happy Meal that much healthier where a new campaign would be warranted to “educate” children about nutritious meals? They could have been doing this all along and not have a new offering (or semi-new offering) tied to it. As marketers, we can see why they would tie the campaign to their new offering as the best way to educate kids about better nutrition is through characters and examples of food. Let’s face it, kids have learned for years about the different food groups and what healthy eating is from Sesame Street so if it has worked so well for them, it will for McDonald’s! Ultimately McDonald’s wants to increase sales and focusing on the healthier NEW Happy Meal just may do just that. The kids will be engaged due to the characters and remember that getting a Happy Meal makes you happy because there is a toy and at the same time, it is healthy and eating healthy makes your mom and dad happy so eat a Happy Meal today! Oh boy!

Does the Nutritional Value Matter?

In the advertising itself, no not at all. McDonald’s spends roughly 13% of its overall ad budget or $115 million dollars in 2010 on advertising the Happy Meal. If the nutritional value mattered, they would not have advertised prior to this week as it was unhealthy last week compared to this week, right? So, we can see where the nutritional value does not matter. What does matter? The message. The message here is to kids. How much of the ad are they understanding? How much are they really paying attention to after they hear Happy Meal and immediately associated it with the toy? Let’s face it, kids rely upon their parents to make the right meal choices for them. The name itself Happy Meal tells us what we are to associate the kids meal with. Happy. Eat a Happy Meal and be happy. Eat a nutritious meal and you are happy; yeah, it just does not flow as well coming from McDonald’s.

If the Nutritional Value Does Not Matter, Then Why All the Hoopla?

Because the nutritional value matters to the parents which are the unintended audience (well the perceived unintended audience). McDonald’s knows that kids watch TV and that the parents are present and while many times slightly paying attention they hear the spot and pay attention to see what the NEW Happy Meal is all about and how are they talking to my kid. McDonald’s has now the attention and focus of the kids and also the parents. Not too shabby. Parents do care what they are feeding their kids. We as parents know that fast food is no where near the nutritional value of a home cooked meal. Knowing this why do we buy it? Convenience. Convenience trumps nutritional value every single time. If we were told that fast food chicken products caused cancer in children, no-one would buy them. The scared straight factor is simple. We do not want our kids eating something that could give them cancer. We do not look at the other diseases such as foods high in sodium which leads to high blood pressure, is a precursor for kidney problems and cardiovascular disease as being a deterrent. Why? These diseases happen over time and the “little bit” that we feed our kids fast food will not lead to that.

Fast Food Advertising to Children

Much has been said about fast food advertising and children. A  BBB 2010 study of 38 hours of children’s programming (note: it does not indicate whether this was network only, cable only or a combination of both, nor does it indicate the sample size demographics; (ie age, gender, etc. as well as the time of day that the 38 hours was studied) found that 1/4 of the ads were for the food itself as it was for sedentary entertainment. With this, there was a 9% increase in the overall advertising from 2009. So, in other words, kids are being exposed to the fast food brands, just in a different way; through enticing to visit their website for a contest, game, to view all of the characters offered in the Happy Meals each week (always a favorite of mine as “see kids the one you have is ok but you need ALL of them/or this particular one”).

While there is only 1/4 of advertisers actually advertising their food to children we would be quite naive to think that kids do not know what food McDonald’s has (unless kids have never eaten fast food, driven in a metropolitan city, never watched tv or gone to school). Kids, like adults who have a favorite fast food restaurant or even a causal or fine dining restaurant associate the food offered there with pleasure. All restaurant owners know (or should know this) and while McDonald’s is promoting the new Happy Meal as nutritious (or more nutritious then the previous one from last week) they know that the nutrition part is not why people come to McDonald’s.  Does it help to change some minds that fast food is not all bad? Of course it does but whose minds are you changing? If people are fast food buyers, they would have bought regardless if the fries were decreased from 2.5 oz to 1.1 oz and a bag of apple slices were added to each Happy Meal. Oh, and by the way, you can opt to get 2 bags of apple slices instead of the fries. Maybe if they were really wanting this to be nutritious, they would replaced the fries with apple slices and you have to ask for the fries (even I chuckled when I wrote this). This will not happen as then kids will associate McDonald’s with the fruit and not the fries and really let’s face it, who would rather have fries vs apple slices?

If we all wanted apple slices, the fast food places would be empty as we all would be at the grocery store during lunch to get our fresh apple. We are willing to leave work to get some fast food but not so much on heading to the grocery store to get some fruit. Shows that we do not associate the apple with the pleasure that we do with fries. Fast food chains know this and exploit it. Grocery stores do not even bother advertising a quick visit of grabbing an apple or even the assorted fruits packages that are so nicely cut up as they know it is a waste of money. We would see that as a hassle and inconvenient where the fast food chain (even if a further drive) is viewed as convenient. This has been engrained in our brains and we do not really think about it until someone points it out. Actually for the grocery store, sales very possibly would increase as we know that every time we “run” in to grab a few things we end up spending more.

Kids LiveWell Initiative

The National Restaurant Association has made great strides in the advertising of kids meals. Most recently they received a commitment of their 68th restaurant brand to provide parents with healthy menu choices. These healthy choices are a good alternative for parents to research however it does not cut down on the advertising of meals that are not considered very healthy. Notice a very large brand with happy food is missing from the initiative. Interesting. I guess they are committed to advertising directly to kids that their meals are nutritious but when it comes actively promoting a selection of menu items that meets the qualifying criteria based on leading health organizations’ scientific recommendations they fall short of the commitment? I guess one could argue that they are doing this, their way, in their new Happy Meal advertising however it seems quite contradictory to their position represented in Chicago Tribune, where McDonald’s calls itself a leadership brand … whether it is for children’s advertising or the food they serve in their restaurants.

I am not attacking McDonald’s here nor am I against advertising to kids as um … sometimes Santa needs some help. As a parent I make the decisions regarding dinner. I am not a fan of fast food so in our house it is a super treat out of pure desperation to pull up to McDonald’s. Chinese food and Italian food/NJ pizza takeout – well … that is a different story! We all have our weaknesses.

Responsible Advertising

I support responsible advertising in all mediums across all targets as does probably everyone reading this and the brands that we see advertising (there are a few exceptions of course).  Is McDonald’s advertising responsible in their new spots?

A pet goat eating a chair, dad’s hair, a hole in a baseball glove that was the exact size of the baseball, paper, etc is funny and will definitely get a lot of laughs especially the dad’s hair but is a child able to see the spot and see the goat’s bad eating as themselves as eating bad? They do not eat paper, couches, dad’s hair, baseball gloves so while they will get a good giggle, it is not very likely that many will see the spot and think of themselves eating better. Which after viewing the spot, the message becomes clear. Come to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal. It does say that the goat needs to change his diet to include fruit and dairy (I guess the other food groups are not as important??) and it highlights the 2 changes in the Happy Meal of milk and the apple slices with fruit to eat but product placment of the french fires is very prominent. So kids, while you are having this treat at McDonald’s (which the ad does mention that they go to McDonald’s for a treat; which could mean the toy as it was not mentioned in the spot), of milk and fruit, which you can have at home, you will still be getting your fries when you come here. The spot is super cute and kids will find great entertainment value but is that enough to really say that they are educating kids on nutrition by mentioning that a goat needs to eat fruits and dairy and after he does he thinks he is as strong as an ox? Keyword that jumped out: THINKS. At least Popeye KNEW.


photo credit: Nation’s Restaurant News