Friday, June 25, 2010


Evil toys

The Los Angeles Times reports about a planned lawsuit against McDonald’s, seeking to make them remove toys from kids’ meals:

Weeks after a Silicon Valley county in California became the first in the nation to ban toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals and other food promotions aimed at children, a public health watchdog group called on the fast food giant to remove the playthings from all its meal packages.

Citing toys aimed at promoting the latest Shrek movie, the Center for Science in the Public Interest said that the plastic promotions lure children into McDonald’s restaurants where they are then likely to order food that is too high in calories, fat and salt.

The group’s litigation director says, with steaming hyperbole, McDonald’s is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children. No, that’s a very inapt metaphor. McDonald’s is no stranger, and it’s the parents who are buying the meals for the kids. Children of the ages that these toys appeal to are not going by themselves into McDonald’s, and are not themselves ordering food.

Libertarian blogger Amy Alkon doesn’t like what the group is doing on two counts: she knows that it’s the carbs, not the fat and salt, that’s bad for the kids (would that it were that simple and straightforward, one way or the other), and she doesn’t like the laws and the courts interfering with our lives this way. On that latter count, I have to agree with Ms Alkon, especially when she says this:

My neighbor, likewise, does not feed her kids McDonald’s. I’ll have to ask how many times they’ve had it. I bet it’s fewer than five times in their little lifetimes. Yes, parenting...still practiced in some corners of the USA. For everybody else, there’s litigating against the free market.

Similarly, the food industry, according to the L.A. Times, urges parents to take responsibility for what their kids order. And yes, that’s absolutely the point: parents need to be in control of this, and the way they’re asking the courts and the legislature to help them is betraying a lack of control — perhaps a lack of willingness to exert control. The foods they don’t want their kids eating will still be there, with or without the plastic toys, and they will still have to have the strength to say no to their children.

But there is a part of this that I sympathize with: I don’t like the way companies market directly to children, in a way that they didn’t when I was a child.

There was a time when most of the marketing was aimed at the parents: buy this for your children, take your children there, and so on. But more and more, we’ve started aiming it directly at the children, encouraging them to tell their parents what they want them to buy and where they want to be taken. It’s not entirely new, of course, and the toys have been there all along — there were toys in sweet breakfast cereals marketed for children when I was young (I used to empty the box on the kitchen table in order to get at the toy sooner), and Cracker Jack boxes have had a prize in them since at least the War of 1812.[1]

That it’s been done for a long time doesn’t make it right, and the increase over the years has made it worse. I wouldn’t mind prohibitions against marketing to small children. Companies will clearly do it, because it works, and free-market forces won’t stop it. Legislation may be the only way.

But toys in the boxes? Nah... they’re fun, and they’re harmless. Except when they’re choking hazards....

[1] Yes, yes, I’m being silly. It was actually 100 years later.

1 comment:

Sue VanHattum said...

My son knows that "we don't buy Happy Meals" in our family. But other people do, and he loves those things. I hate all the junk toys, not just the bad food.

He has always loved Hot Wheels cars. I was fine with that. He found Acceleracer videos on YouTube, and now has 2 dvds. He's been looking for acceleracer cars, and saving up money for them. I'm sad that he's so obsessed with them. Marketing toys with videos/movies isn't new, but I don't like it.

I would love it if marketing for toys were severely restricted.