CSPI Sues McDonald’s Over Happy Meals Marketing

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WASHINGTON—A class-action lawsuit has been filed against McDonald’s alleging the fast-food chain’s Happy Meals are in violation of California's consumer protection laws.

The class-action suit will be filed today in the California Superior Court in San Francisco by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) on behalf of Monet Parham, a Sacramento, Calif., mother of two who claims that her young children ask to go to McDonald’s to get toys based on characters like Barbie, i-Carly, Shrek and Strawberry Shortcake.

According to CSPI, McDonald’s strategy of “unfair and deceptive marketing" is entirely by design. Fast-food companies—with McDonald’s by far in the lead—spent over $520 million in 2006 on advertising and toys to market children’s meals. Toy premiums made up almost three-quarters of those expenses, totaling more than $350 million.

 “Every time McDonald’s markets a Happy Meal directly to a young child, it exploits a child’s developmental vulnerability and violates several states’ consumer protection laws, including the California Unfair Competition Law," said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner.

“I am concerned about the health of my children and feel that McDonald’s should be a very limited part of their diet and their childhood experience," Parham said. “But as other busy, working moms and dads know, we have to say ‘no’ to our young children so many times, and McDonald’s makes that so much harder to do. I object to the fact that McDonald’s is getting into my kids’ heads without my permission and actually changing what my kids want to eat."

Even though Happy Meals television advertising shows brief glimpses of healthier products, such as Apple Dippers and low-fat milk, the default options put into Happy Meal by McDonald's employees are usually French fries and sugary sodas. In a CSPI study of 44 McDonald’s outlets, french fries were automatically included in Happy Meals 93 percent of the time. Soft drinks were the first choice offered to customers 78 percent of the time.

In June, CSPI first notified McDonald’s it might be the target of a lawsuit. Repeatedly, CSPI offered to meet with McDonald’s to try to reach an agreement that would avoid litigation, but McDonald’s refused.

CSPI served McDonald’s with a letter on Dec. 14 instructing the company to preserve any documents in its possession related to the use of toys to market Happy Meals to children. Lawyers for Parham will seek to examine those documents in discovery as the case proceeds. In addition to CSPI's Litigation Unit, Parham is also represented by private attorney Richard Baker of Baker Law, P.C. in Birmingham, Alabama.

Click here to read the complaint.

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