When McDonald’s sneezes, the media jumps. Such was the case Tuesday when the fast food giant announced it was giving the Happy Meal a makeover. Well not really, but that’s how it got reported, because the media loves simple stories. But when it comes to marketing and PR by multinational corporations, nothing is ever that simple.


While my colleagues have done a great job of explaining why nutritionally, this move is little more than PR (see Marion Nestle and Andy Bellatti), missing from the analysis so far is this: what McDonald’s really wants is to remain in charge.

The fast food giant’s motivation beyond the obvious positive PR spin is to stave off more laws like the one passed in San Francisco to set nutrition standards for Happy Meals, not to mention lawsuits like the one filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest based on deceptive marketing.

No doubt McDonald’s is gearing up to challenge the San Francisco ordinance in court the minute it goes in effect later this year. A similar bill has been proposed New York City while other localities wait to see the legal outcome. Now, McDonald’s gets to claim to any lawmaker or judge who will listen: “We don’t need no stinking laws, we got it covered with our new and improved Happy Meals. We got the message loud and clear, so now we’re cleaning up act all on our own. Nothing to see here, move along.”

As I explained in my book, Big Food announcements of improved corporate behavior are for two reasons only: positive PR and staving off government regulation (and in this case, more litigation).

While the former is more obvious, the latter should cause you to ask: Who is in charge here? McDonald’s ultimate goal is to make as little change as possible to get media attention (and praise from the likes of the First Lady), while distracting policymakers from doing its job setting the boundaries of corporate behavior.

One argument I often hear about why we should praise these sort of industry moves is that “it’s a step in the right direction.” But in what direction exactly? A direction in which McDonald’s and friends continue to get to call all the shots for how we eat and how our children are marketed to? What is the end game in a world where we accept “incremental change” from corporations who answer only to shareholders? Somehow I don’t see that in 200 more steps Happy Meal boxes will morph into CSA boxes full of fresh, local produce.

Rather than praise corporations like McDonald’s for such meaningless and most likely temporary “improvements” let’s call them out for the distractions they are. We can at least celebrate that years of advocacy efforts to curb marketing to children is causing McDonald’s to take notice, as lame as it is.

Then let’s get back to the much harder job of policy change: to convince our democratically-elected leaders (or judges if that’s what it takes) that McDonald’s should not be allowed to market to children, period. No matter how many ounces of French fries or apple slices Happy Meals contain.


Michele Simon is a public health lawyer specializing in industry marketing and lobbying tactics. She is the author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, and research and policy director at Marin Institute, an alcohol industry watchdog group. This piece was first posted on her Appetite for Profit website July 27, 2011; reposted with permission.


  • Doc Mudd

    I dunno.
    For decades and decades, McDonalds (along with many other significant food ‘industry’ players) has produced and distributed acceptable food (not great, OK, but satisfactory to the consumers involved – sustenance, if you will) to a couple hundred million Americans and a few billion, or so, other global citizens on a daily basis – has accomplished this (most of the time) safely and affordably for consumers, profitably for themselves.
    For this, in the last decade or so, they are bashed unfairly and unmercifully by marginalized hatemongering anti-corporate elitist food worshiping busybody crackpot theorists (hereafter referred to as the Food Police). They charge common food is “unhealthy” (there is no objective definition of “healthy” food or “unhealthy” food, by the way, just biased opinions; these are clever weasel words habitually wielded as bludgeons in routine Food Police operations). Anyway, according to the Food Police, common foods must be rejected and replaced by unspecified uncommon foods to be approved and annointed by unidentified food snobs.
    The ‘evidence’ of “unhealthiness” is said to be obesity, which has coincidentally in the last decade, or so, been popularized as the politically correct target for bigotry – fat bashing is so au courant. Using the new math (apparently), the Food Police assert 1 + 0 + 0 = 100% certainty that McDonalds (or insert name of other food industry player in the Food Police swat team’s crosshairs at the moment) has single-handedly caused us all to get fat (affluence, overeating, lethargy have nothing to do with it, or so the story goes). And, being fat, we’re all certainly going to die.
    It seems we are a cadre of hapless, helpless, doomed citizens wholly dependent upon the vigilance and protection of the heroic Food Police to make our eating decisions for us – we are incapable of feeding ourselves or our children, as it turns out. A political power struggle is imagined between the self-annointed experts of the Food Police and unnamed evil genocidal maniacs in the food industry. A unilateral war is being waged to set grievous wrongs aright…and sell books and garner monetary donations (not necessarily in that order)
    So, the latest development in this hateful clown circus? Within the last 24 hours McDonalds announced it will include fruit with children’s meals. FRUIT!! The Food Police, of course, are outraged! And so too, they insist, should we all be.
    But, I am not outraged. I admit I was a little confused at first, but I’m not now. See, it was the title of this article, “Who Put McDonalds in Charge of Kids’ Health?” that punked me. Cute trick, but the real title should be “Who Put Michele Simon and the Food Police in Charge of Our Food System… or Anything Else for That Matter?”

  • S Spence

    I agree with the title but not the premise of this article. McDonald’s is not in charge of what my children eat I am. I never felt it was anyone else’s responsibility to educate my children on nutrition. As for trying to stay ahead of legislation, it’s not only a corporate social responsibility, it’s good business.
    Thanks McDonald’s

  • Alicia Wheatley

    The major issue with this argument is your point: “McDonald’s and friends continue to get to call all the shots for how we eat…” Too many people willingly relinquish personal responsibility and blame marketing. Surely we have more control over ourselves than this. McDonald’s has never promised to be a destination for “CSA boxes full of fresh, local produce.” Never. But can we at least give the company some credit for attempting to answer criticisms by offering more – in some cases better – choices?

  • Good comments here. In my college marketing classes, I learned that it makes sense to have an industry that’s self regulated rather than waiting for government mandates to step in. It shows responsibility and I would think it would often be more effective. I don’t think government regulations are the best way to go about eating healthy. People likely won’t embrace it as well if they’re forced by the government, but they might if they decide to make the lifestyle change themselves, or if food companies decide to go healthier on their own. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for a company to want a reasonable control of what they do either.

  • Kent

    Great comments here. I’ll point out that the mentality of this OP reflects a decline in emphasis on individual responsibility in society. We’re more willing to place blame on entire groups and corporations for causing our problems rather than confront the fact that most individuals are capable of rational decision making. Parents are responsible for weighing the benefits of bringing their children to McD’s; after all, 3 year olds don’t walk into McD’s to order happy meals. Trying to restrict consumers choices contributes to our path to serfdom.
    “Responsibility, not to a superior, but to one’s conscience, . . . [and the willingness] to bear the consequences of one’s own decision, are the very essence of any morals which
    deserve the name.” – F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, London: Routledge, 1997, p. 43

  • Lisa

    Rather than consider that McDonald’s steps might not be as helpful (or healthy) as they’re promoting, we get screeds about “marginalized hatemongering anti-corporate elitist food worshiping busybody crackpot theorists (hereafter referred to as the Food Police)”. Unhelpful, uninformed, and sadly naive.
    As Michele Simon has said elsewhere, the idea that parents need to make good choices for kids (not Doc Mudd’s dreaded “Food Police”) is not mutually exclusive with the idea that McDonald’s should stop targeting children in their marketing. Michelle Simon isn’t in charge of our food system, and isn’t claiming to be. At least she’s contributing to a reasoned debate, rather than simply hurling invective.

  • The reality is we do not know what is good for us many of us weren’t trained in that field, which is why we are not all Doctors or Nutritionist We rely on what we are told by people we trust. In this case folks do not have enough information to make a choice because they are too busy earning a living to pay the bills.
    It is not appropriate for a company that exists to profit from the sale of inherently unhealthy product Macs or otherwise to be the adviser on its nutritional positives. We are naive if we miss the possibility of associated branding and messaging that may cause confusion. If because of financial or vocational circumstances you have limited access to food the food you have access to should be nutritious. The e real route of the challenge is the phrase “Cheap food” there is no such thing there is subsidized junk but good food isn’t cheap. Until we change the reason a company exists and redefine profit, sadly the only thing that matters to fast food corporations is shareholder return, wall street sees to that. So as long as we have the model we have regulation not corporate posturing holds the key to nutritious food for all.
    So whilst applauding Mac’s for a great step forward its sad that for many this will be there only source of advice that may be confusing.

  • Doc Mudd

    How can Michele Simon’s blatant hatemongering op ed lambasting McDonalds Corporation be spun by her disciples into any semblance of “contributing to reasoned debate”?
    The affront: McDonalds put fruit in a child’s meal – how can that be evil intent? Politically correct mothers do this all the time.
    McDonalds advertises this change to it’s children’s menu, promotes the change as “healthy”. This seems reasonable; a thing is either subjectively “healthy” or “unhealthy”. Even the food police, until just now, have not habitually considered fruit “unhealthy”.
    Oddly enough, this unremarkable event precipitates a foodie crapstorm in the media, including here at FSN. What the hell?
    In an unwarranted hystrionic rage Food Police captains like Marion Nestle lash out at McDonalds for co-opting the undefinable term “healthy” in their advertising (geez, maybe Food Police should have trademarked the nebulous term to protect it?).
    Predictably, Food Police unleash their proud bigotry, railing against the “cheapness” of the food and the utter stupidity of the working classes who are believed to consume it. This is the special contribution of journalism professor Micheal “food is too cheap’ Pollan – a trendy loathing pity for the poor, obese clods who consume “cheap” food; a bigoted condemnation humanely, charitably stopping just short of blaming.
    The blame, you see, is reserved for…wait for it…corporations. Evil, efficient, effective, enterprising corporations like McDonalds and hundreds of others who operate successfully and profitably while at the same time feeding and nourishing us all.
    What does Simon and the Food Police want from McDonald’s and the others, exactly? They don’t say, they just hint around the edges.
    Seems the Food Police and their willing minions intend to topple our mostly OK capitalist food system and somehow replace it with an undisclosed dreamy socialist feudal arrangement of noble peasant farmers, or somesuchlike. Only then, in the hallucinations of the Food Police, can there be properly annointed and apportioned “nutritious food for all”!
    Wll, looks like that sketchy plan is gonna take a while to fall into place. In the meantime, the Food Police amuse themselves by incrementally forcing their goofball agenda upon you and I and our children. Grimly pushing forward, steadfastly obfuscating truth, promoting a false sense of guilt and energetically sucking the fun out of life wherever they encounter it.
    Oh, and they will sell books, too. I almost forgot to mention the books by Simon and Nestle and Pollan that are for sale. Hey, wait a minute. Why aren’t these heroic anti-capitalist juggernauts not publishing and giving away the books for free as a gesture of charity and concern for the public health they claim to be so passionate about? Hmmm…go figure.
    Oh well. Carry on, old girls, carry on!

  • JDG

    “A direction in which McDonald’s and friends continue to get to call all the shots for how we eat and how our children are marketed to?”
    I don’t know about you, but I have no problem avoiding McDonald’s restaurants. Instead of whining about McDonalds and their product, get off your seat, start a successful health food restaurant and compete. This is the real way to introduce healthier food products, not cowardly running to the government to legislate your way.
    We, the people, are capable of making our own food choices. I have the freedom to make whatever stupid decisions I wish as long as I don’t harm my neighbor. And frankly, what I eat is none of your business even if it is unhealthy. I don’t need the nanny-state government dictating my food intake. The only reason McDonald’s exists is because the free market demands they exist through the continual purchasing of their product by millions world wide.
    Shouldn’t you be worrying about more important issues than where citizens legally and freely choose to purchase meals?

  • Lydia

    Why should regulations be put on corporations about marketing. The parents are the ones that drive them to the restaurant. Parents need to take some responsibility in this childhood obesity problem. Don’t feed them crap. I feed a family of 5 on $100 a week with fresh fruits and vegetables, dry beans, fat free yogurt, skim milk, lean meats and whole grains. Just like soda, chips, and candy, McDonald’s should be reserved for a once in a while treat, not to be eaten daily.

  • Jean B

    Thanks for a thoughtful article, Michelle. Of course, it’s not really “McDonald’s and friends” who “continue to get to call all the shots for how we eat and how our children are marketed to,” is it? I seem to remember my mother making that decision for me…as I think all parents have the responsibility to do for their kids (and to teach them how to do for themselves).
    Sure, the marketplace could make it easier. Companies exist to make money, and they will always decide by that principle what they will/will not do. But WE are the marketplace — and if we don’t respond, they’ll change. So the parent buying the Happy Meal is the one we need to reach.
    And in the meantime, we can’t let the good be the enemy of the perfect. Because the marketplace is never perfect. And neither are we.

  • D. Carrell

    This franchise has been around longer than dirt. It’s success is their attention to being the same in Bangor, Maine as in Brown, Utah. The food is acceptable, cooked well and served attractively.
    The air condition/heating is always correct, the play area is usually safe and monitered (if the parents are not in site-ever seen the cameras? they are there). The stocks are high and have remained so because McDonald’s changes with the times. What this business initiates…the rest usually follow…or fail! The fault comes from the un-informed American public that considers this food a good daily diet. You probably will not die from it..for a few years.
    2 bits worth

  • Amy

    I am more than intelligent enough to know not to feed my children food from McDonald’s. My children are also intellectually capable of understanding why I won’t feed it to them. However, you are fooling yourselves if you think they don’t feel slighted by having one of few mommies who won’t let them eat McDonald’s food. They see it on T.V., the Internet, and at their school when other mommies bring it for lunch. It is everywhere and is marketed DIRECTLY to them. Maybe you are lucky enough to have children who are sheltered from these avenues of influence, but for people in the real world, limiting the marketing of fast food restaurants to children would help make life just a little easier. In a perfect world, my kids would be in the majority when eating healthy, organic, local whole foods…this world is FAR from perfect.

  • CT

    Question for the editors of FSN… How are the opinion articles for FSN selected?
    Articles from (to be generic) “Food Police” authors — like Nestle and now Simon — have become all too frequent recently, and the anti-industry bias has become painfully obvious to those of us who have been regular visitors to this site over the past year.
    Why not include opinion pieces from people who represent the food industry and are working from within to make those small but meaningful changes? Why not include authors who are food scientists and researchers who see the potential the food industry has to play a positive role in the health and safety of our nation? Many of these authors are criticizing things they truly don’t understand.

  • BK

    If parents are responsible for knowing what to feed their kids…then why are there so many nutrition related diseases/issues ot there? (Obesity, diabetes, etc, etc). We do need the gov to regulate the crap that is put into our food. For people who don’t have the time/money to cook or buy food from elsewhere, they have no optiopn. And most of them are not aware of the ingridients that are in the food and how they can harm you. Imagine if no action was taken on trans fat….We need more actions to control the amount of sodium, sugar and saturated fats also.
    I do believe its not right to blame McDonald’s alone or force them to turn their menu into the perfect food plate/food pyramid model. But, some action has to be taken. We need regulation, awareness and more healthy and affordable options.

  • Jennifer

    Firms too often justify their behavior as being a “pure” reflection of consumer will. May be in PR marketing fairy land. A company’s best interest lies with selling the food with the highest profit margin and in fact have an obligation to their shareholders to steer consumers to such products.
    All too often firms will engage in deception and lack of information to make it harder for you to make a purchasing decision in the best interest of you and your family. Obviously also have an obligation to fight regulation that doesn’t advance company interest.
    So if you see intolerable deceit and abuse and would like to advance your personally responsible self-interest call the food police before you call their 1-800 number.

  • Doc Mudd

    Never any need to “call” the food police.
    You see, they never sleep – always alert to opportunities to chasten some flabby-assed consumer and cuss out the food industry.
    Heck, they’re watching you right now…clucking their tongues over what you’re eating…ruefully guaging the beam of your butt…pitying your indifference to trendy elititst foodie cult-think…loathing you for making your own decisions some of the time…hating industry for enabling you to decide for yourself.
    No need to call them – their deputies are everywhere, and they are authorized to act on individual impulse and in gangs to pompously lecture and embarrass you in the restaurants, in the stores, on the streets, in your favorite magazines & newspapers, in your kids’ schoolrooms, everywhere! And, it’s all justified by the insidious co-opting and bastardizing of the concept of “public health”.
    The Food Police – don’t call them…they will call on you, and scold you, and harrass you, and lie to you, and scare you, and generally annoy the living crap out of you until you are finally trained to conduct yourself to their specifications.
    Thank God for the Food Police!! Our heros!!!
    Oh, no! Look, what is that over there?
    Is that someone enjoying themselves…possibly shopping or eating or drinking something…or thinking about doing any of those things?
    Duty calls! Quick, heros, quickly to the scene of the crime to beat back evil industry and straighten out another belligerent eater…

  • Jonesy

    I’ve never been harassed anywhere by this food police. Must be a made up paper tiger meant to agitate you.
    What I know is that Bill Marler and Food Safety News writers are spoiling the fun of eating food that will maim or kill you. But is not like if dialysis, amputation and disability was ever fun to begin with.
    Don’t count on the food pushers and their enablers for compassion and help when that happens.

  • Below you’ll find Belgium accommodations which is determined as a result of our office staff as a result of between thousends connected with places to stay with Poland. Contrary to other companies most of us already have seen the actual motels plus looked whether they may be encouraged for you. Many of our inns should not be located at some other web-site, due to the fact not like alternative Lodging Traders we’re devoted to high-quality, which will commonly become seen in the ones little, a smaller amount well recognized yet much more Develop lodges.