(Un)Happy Meals?


Today brought moves for a code of conduct for the ‘junk food industry’ to limit the advertising content in junk food ads to children. One of the suggestions is that McDonalds would not be allowed to put toys in Happy Meals.

When it comes down to it, the whole move against advertising towards children is a red herring at best and at worst a distraction and excuse for governments not to hit at real problems.

  • First, it is highly unlikely that junk food ads were causing the problem. It is the junk food itself that is surely the issue. Let’s face it, no one really believes that advertisements really work otherwise they would advertise carrots to children this way and it would ‘solve the problem.’
  • Second, Happy Meals are not about the food but about the toys. The good thing about the food is that it is in small quantities. In my day, when we went to McDonalds we would eat adult meals. Anything that stops that is surely a good thing. McDonalds is likely making all their money on selling the toys in these meals.
  • Third, indeed, if we are worried about children eating McDonalds then the biggest threat — ironically — are the salads and sandwitches McDonalds now offers. These make it easier to sell Happy Meals. Why? Previously, a constraint on going to McDonalds was that increasingly health conscious adults would be resistant because they would have nothing to eat. Now, that is not the case. Remove that constraint and more children get McDonalds. Of course, I don’t want to suggest banning healthy food at McDonalds only to suggest that playing around with these things is complicated.
  • Finally, if we get politicians thinking that dealing with advertising is good health policy we won’t get good health policy. Moves to control the actual content of food rather than the content of food messages is surely the way to go. Thus, moves to ban soft drinks in school tuckshops is a much better candidate for health policy focus.

On a parting note, let’s not forget the critical role junk food plays in children discipline and incentives. Everytime an ad is shown, children value junk food more and therefore react more when they receive it as a reward. Happy Meals do have carrots after all.

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