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No more Happy Meals

That’s it. It’s the end of the McDonald’s Happy Meal as we know it.

One of the most loved, and at the same time most hated, consumer items aimed at kids has been the Happy Meal. Loved by children, hated by doctors and nutritionists. The McDonald’s Happy Meal has been the perfect marketing product: a fast food meal aimed at children, sold along with a free toy to ensure that children pester their parents to go to McDonald’s. McDonald’s provided the meal and the toy was courtesy Walt Disney, to coincide with its latest movie release, a form a free advertising for the company. Part of the deal was that all Disney theme parks had to have a McDonald’s.

Now, the tie-up between these two huge multinational companies is about to come to an end. The last example of the tie-up will be later this year when Disney releases its two big movies Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. After that, no more Disney toys with every small-size burger and chips.

Why is this partnership worth millions to both companies splitting?

One possible reason is that Disney is trying to move away from all the recent controversy surrounding fast food and the growing number of overweight children in the US. The number of obese children between the ages of 11 and 15 has nearly doubled in a decade, to about a quarter of the population of kids that age being considered overweight. And the blame rests squarely on the food industry that has been targeting young children. Although people have been criticising most fast food chains, McDonald’s seems to have been blamed most often in books and movies like Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me.

Last year, Disney’s largest stockholder, Steven Jobs (the Apple computer guy who also owned most of Disney!) expressed his concerns about fast food and using films to promote it. At the same time, a number of schools banned soft drinks from their canteens.

Because of the criticism, McDonald’s has tried to make the Happy Meal more healthy by offering fruits and fruit juice instead of fries and soft drinks. But these moves have generally been seen as being too little, too late.

The Happy Meal was the brainchild of advertising manager Dick Brams, in 1977, who wanted to give a more family-friendly aura to McDonald’s, and to make it especially attractive to families with small children. The first Happy Meal, along with a toy, was sold in June 1979. And so the practice continued. The first ever toy promotion of a film was the Star Trek Meal, in December 1979. The brand became so successful that the Happy Meal is one of the few multinational products that has the same name in nearly every country!

In India, the Happy Meal may continue for a bit longer since most movies are screened here a little later than they are in the US. And there is always the possibility that, by then, McDonald’s will find someone else to tie up with, someone happy to keep the Happy Meal name.

But even in India there is a slowly gathering storm about unhealthy fast foods aimed at children. In our country, which is known more for lack of food rather than too much food, where people still die of starvation, many kids are eating too much fast food and getting fat. One of the things about fast food that makes it affordable and almost addictive is that it is nutritionally ‘empty’. That means it has the fats and sugars needed to make it taste good, but not much else that is required to help bodies grow and stay healthy. So if you eat it too often, you get fat and unhealthy. This is becoming noticeable in our bigger cities, and though we haven’t reached American levels of concern, people are beginning to get worried.

The first signs of this storm have been in the last year where some schools, with the support of parents, put their foot down and refused to sell colas on the school premises.

One school management organisation, the Archdiocese Board of Education, has, in fact, completely banned soft drinks and now only allows the sale of fruit juice and buttermilk in its canteens. Since the board runs around 150 schools, this decision should make a small but significant difference. Maybe it will snowball and more and more schools will enforce the ban... 

What’s also interesting is that, earlier this year, the Maharashtra state government’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also got involved in the discussion. This organisation, which regulates and controls the sale of all commercial food and drugs, wants a total ban on commercial soft drinks in schools. Unfortunately, many other government organisations will need to be involved in such a ban and it will take some time to see whether the ban can be made into law and then enforced by the police. If it is, this will be the first time something like this has been done for the sake of public health, and the state will be a world leader. Some American states are trying to put together a fast food and soft drinks ban in schools, but it has not become law anywhere yet. Although some US schools and colleges do prohibit certain drinks like Coca-Cola or Pepsi in their campus vending machines, so far that seems more to do with the bad business practices of these companies: in other words, it is ethics rather than health that’s behind these bans.

As expected, the big soft drinks manufacturers in India and the US are fighting tooth-and-nail against any such ban.

And so the Happy Meal is dying an unnatural death. But one thing we can be sure about is that the multinational food corporations and their local marketers will quickly find something to replace it. Until we learn to value our health and local home-grown food traditions that help us stay healthy.

--Manoj Nadkarni

InfoChange News & Features, June 2006

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