The world famous McDonald’s Happy Meal. Photo by Christina Kennedy.
The San Francisco board of supervisors won national headlines last year by picking a fight with everyone’s favorite fast food chain, McDonald’s. In an effort to address the epidemic of childhood obesity that exists not just locally within city limits but nationwide, the board mandated that any fast food meal that comes with a toy meet strict nutritional requirements. Further, the ordinance all but outright banned the famous brand name McDonald’s Happy Meal, overriding a promised mayoral veto in a vote of 8-3.
The effort symbolizes the practical execution of a major tenet of the left’s social policy in recent political cycles and one of the Obama administration’s key agenda points in regards to public health. Given all that was made vulnerable by this measure in terms of convincing Americans how effectively government can police the marketing of calories to children, then consider how the ripples of this debate that will echo in the areas of fast food and corporate philanthropy equivalent to what the Solyndra debacle meant to the future of solar energy.
Politically, the issue resembles all the difficulties of global warming: The error and those who lies at fault are obvious but good luck getting a free society of working parents to tell their kids to eat healthy without bribing them with a toy, or so we’re told.
Since there are so many unwanted responsibilities burdening the American taxpayer at the moment concerning investing in the quality of life for future generations (climate change, ballooning national debt, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, etc.) that childhood obesity understandably falls by the way side. After all, better to give your kids an America with real New England winters, a balanced budget, and a subdued middle east even if they weigh 300 pounds by 40, right?
Yet even when the moral optics of this debate err on the side of municipal bureaucrats, leave it to a PR team as savvy as that of McDonald’s to find a way to skirt regulations, keep the Happy Meal, and win public support in an applaudable display of marketing ethics ballet.
Shortly after the ordinance passed, McDonald’s made no effort to remove the Happy Meal from menus at their San Franciscan locations, they just changed the rules on how to get them. Parents now have to request a toy to come with their Happy Meal and have an extra dime added to the price, the proceeds of which will benefit — and check out this slap in the face — the Ronald McDonald House of San Francisco.
If public relations were more akin to football, I’d be stretching for a metaphor between McDonald’s ‘generosity’ and watching Tim Tebow in the fourth quarter right now. Though because publicists by nature can’t be rockstars, I’m not sure exactly who to call Tebow, or Jesus for that matter. After all, there’s at least two Ronalds for me to chose from here.
So since the Happy Meal isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, what exactly has been accomplished by this charade? In essence, the San Francisco ordinance has merely mandated that a service that offers a toy in exchange for nutrition give (most of?) the proceeds gained to charity. A middle class kid gets fat and a sickly child in need is cared for — gluttony for the sake of altruism! Everyone wins, right?
Yet even for all the applause the industry giant may deserve for mastering the craft of underhanded corporate douche-baggery, this was far from a fair fight in the court of public opinion. Naturally, McDonald’s has the practical high ground in this skirmish because the debate has nothing to do with jobs or the economy, and therefore John Q. Public does not give an ioda about what happens.
2011, or 2012 for that matter, is no where near the kind of climate for a good social war the likes of which could be had by the spread of this story. That can only happen once all our class wars are over, but if we were living in simpler, more prosperous times (like say, the ’90s) then lord only knows how grassroots media like talk radio would be brewing over this.
Perhaps that’s something to be grateful for? If the world may or may not going to hell in a handbag anytime soon, at least it doing so affords us the opportunity to argue about things that are important instead, like our financial system.
Something else about this story to be grateful for: at least the city government of San Francisco can at least brag that they possess a firm grasp of basic nutrition. They may not be able to spare their citizens the consumer slavery of having to purchase a toy that will convince their child it’s normal to swallow packets of processed meat slabs between bread slices, but they’re still fully aware that french fries are neither healthy enough to constitute a proper vegetable serving and by no means do they qualify as fruit.