Do inexpensive plastic toys lure children–or their parents–into making unhealthy food choices? A leading consumer advocacy group believes they do and is threatening to sue fast food giant McDonald’s if the company doesn’t end its practice of using toys to promote its products.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) on Tuesday served Oak Brook, Illinois-based McDonald’s USA with an intent-to-sue in 30 days if the company doesn’t “immediately stop using toys to market Happy Meals to young children.” McDonald’s, which began offering Happy Meals in 1979, is currently offering a collection of Shrek-themed watches as part of its Happy Meal promotions. Shrek is a cartoon character developed by DreamWorks animation.

shrek-watches.jpg“DreamWorks is the supplier of the drug and McDonald’s is the pusher and distributor in this country,” said CSPI attorney Steve Gardner.

While the organization has considered going after promotion partners like DreamWorks in the past, the popular animation studio is not a target of this particular action.

McDonald’s give-aways don’t just end in the Happy Meal box, however. Online, kids can find puzzles, wallpaper, games, and music videos geared directly toward children, tied in with Happy Meal promos. Above links to the various online games and activities, a statement in a very light, small typeface warns children: “Hey kids, this is advertising”. The links to promotions are all offered in far bolder, brighter, larger typefaces.

“We couldn’t disagree more with the misrepresentation of our food and marketing practices made by the Center for Science in the Public Interest,” the company said in a statement released shortly after CSPI’s announcement.  “Since 2006, we have been a part of the Council for Better Business Bureau’s voluntary initiative to address the importance of children’s well-being. In the U.S., McDonald’s primarily advertises the four-piece Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal which includes Apple Dippers, low-fat caramel dip and one percent low-fat white milk.”

As part of its participation in the Council for Better Business Bureau’s voluntary initiative, McDonald’s “pledged to advertise only Happy Meals that meet McDonald’s nutrition standards for children,” CSPI claims, but the company undermines that pledge with an “insidious use” of toys to promote the meals. That, coupled with the fact that the meals are “nutritionally inappropriate” for children makes the promotions little better than a “bait and switch,” said Gardner.

McDonald’s does use the healthier Apple Dippers in its advertising, the CSPI attorney acknowledged but once the customer actually gets to McDonald’s, the apple side is almost always replaced–by default–with nutritionally inferior fries, unless the customer specifically asks for it. It’s rarely, if ever, offered at the counter, he said.

Anyway, Apple Dippers are only relatively healthier, Gardner added, and send kids a mixed message: apples are only good if they’re paired up with sugary caramel. Ultimately, he said, “They’re forming really bad eating habits. Their healthiest meal still isn’t good for you.”

This isn’t the first official action targeting McDonald’s use of toys to promote its products to children. Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors of Santa Clara County, CA, voted to ban the promotion tool in restaurants in the county’s unincorporated communities.

McDonald’s has 30 days to respond to CSPI’s notice and did respond Tuesday with a brief email to Michael Jacobson, secretary of the board for the organization.

“Dr. Jacobson,” the succinct message read. “I received your email.” The note was signed by William Whitman, a spokesperson for McDonald’s.

McDonald’s did not respond to additional questions from Food Safety News; Dreamworks did not respond at all.

Pictured:  Shrek 3D Happy Meal Watches from (cropped). 

Update: This story was republished to ensure attribution accuracy.

  • erine

    Are we crazy? Parents are to determine what they feed their children. My niece and nephew have never had fried chicken (which I think is child abuse). I think they have only been to Wendy’s and Five Guys once. We’ve truly lost site of parenting and the role of the parent.

  • Mulffy

    I hope a judge throws this frivolous suit out. At what point are parents going to become responsible for their choices, and for teaching their kids to make good choices? McDonalds job is to sell hamburgers. They are doing a good job, now it time for the American people to start teaching their kids soem values, and quite expecting everyone else to raise them.

  • Vickie Hanson

    Parents are responsible to provide healthy meals to their children regularly, not McDonalds or any other restaurant. It’s not McDonald’s fault if some parents are too lazy to prepare nutritious meals to their children regularly and feed them fast food instead. Happy Meals are meant to be fun, not as an alternative to healthy foods. A Happy Meal just won’t be very “Happy” without the toy.

  • David Rosequist

    The more I read about this the sicker it makes me. I read one
    where they compared Mcdonalds to a child molester!! Isn’t that
    deframation of character? I hope if this is sucsessful that they then turn there attention to the cereal companies. They have been putting toys in sugar loaded cereals for years also.
    I used to take my kids to Mcdonalds once a month for a special time. Damn me for not being a good Parent

  • Brian

    This group is full of idiots. Toys have been included in Happy Meals for what seems like an eternity. It’s the parent’s job to decide what their children eat, and if they take them to McDonald’s every now and then for a special treat, then there’s nothing wrong with that as long as they eat healthy most of the time.
    Seriously, what’s next? Are we going to replace all the playgrounds with soft foam covered in bubble wrap? How about making candy illegal until you’re 18?

  • Doc Mudd

    “Center for Science in the Public Interest” respects neither science nor the public interest. They are the food taliban posing as concerned citizens; spreading fear, guilt, and relentlessly sucking the enjoyment out of life. They desperately need to have some sense slapped into them – now, that I would enjoy even more than a Happy Meal!

  • Rummy

    Like the rest of these comments, I agree that this lawsuit is totally off base. Children don’t drive to McDonald’s to get their unhealthy meals. The parents are to blame here. McDonald’s is a choice like all the many things we have in this country. If CSPI was really trying to do the right thing, they would quit trying to gleen money of the successful business and focus on training parents to eat healthy.

  • This lawsuit was supposed to be in the interest of the public, but a large number of people seem to be speaking out against it.
    Concerned citizens and parents attacked the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s (CSPI) Facebook page regarding their potential lawsuit against McDonald’s Happy Meal Toys.
    Read the posts outraged parents left on CPSI’s Facebook:
    Bob Cutler, CEO of Creative Consumer Concepts (C3), addressed CSPI’s ridiculous claims and the possibility of the unnecessary lawsuit. “This lawsuit is CSPI and the government over-reaching. Parents are capable of choosing what their children should eat. This issue pries on public sensitivity for issues such as obesity, the poor or the unemployed, which nobody can stand against without looking completely insensitive,” said Cutler. is for anyone who wants to choose what they eat! Visit Twitter: @ChooseMeals for more information about what you can do to protect consumer choice and stop these ridiculous issues.

  • Tres

    Sad sad sad. Parents defending their right to malnourished kids. And now MacDonalds is selling “Hope in a Box” to rope in the altruistic kids who aren’t falling for the plastic toy ploy. MacDonalds puts us just one step up from China, where they sell non-nurtional infant formula and babies died. We don’t kill ours. We just dummy them down with poor nutrition so they’ll be just smart enough to pull levers in our factories but not smart enough to see how they get screwed. In VA it’s become a huge problem that parents raise their kids of Mountain Dew so their teeth & bones are rotted out by the time they’re teenagers. Based on the quality of responses I see here, we might as well go back to selling them cigarettes too.