Yesterday, in the most Internet-appropriate news item since the last time Donald Trump opened his mouth, fast-food behemoth McDonald’s announced it was going to stop giving out activity trackers with children’s Happy Meals after reports of the wearables causing skin irritations.
Yes, you heard that right.
McDonald’s was giving kids step-counting watches, and they were burning their skin. Hilarity—and headlines—ensued. But there are some facts at the core of this that are more terrifying than funny.
McDonald’s Is the World’s Largest Toy Distributor
Seriously. As of 2001, the fast-food chain was giving away a staggering 1.5 billion toys annually, far more than Hasbro or Mattel. They sell more that 75 burgers a second, and reportedly 20 percent of all sales include a toy. Of course, this kind of volume, especially considering they’re free toys, doesn’t come without some quality control issues, and the activity tracker is hardly the first fail Ronald and company have had to shoulder.
Standouts include 2010’s recall of Shrek-themed drinking glasses that were found to be laced with cadmium, a carcinogen that can cause bone softening and severe kidney damage, and choking problems with millions of Hello Kitty toys in 2014. Last year, the company refused to recall toys based on the popular Minions movie, despite loads of reports that the prerecorded voice inside was uttering curse words.
They’re Sneaking in Through Teachers
For the first time, McDonald’s has seen some sales slip in the past few years, especially with kids. So what do you do when handing out free toys doesn’t lure children? You get to them through someone they trust. McDonald’s has for years been holding controversial McTeacher’s Nights, in which a teacher will actually work at a local McDonald’s restaurant serving up Big Macs to their community in exchange for a portion of the evening’s sales going to their school. Not surprisingly, there are many outspoken critics to the policy.
“For a young kid to see one of their teachers anywhere outside of school is exciting and thrilling, and kids trust and respect their teachers,” Josh Grolin, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, told the Boston Globe last year, adding, “and to leverage that to sell kids junk food is preposterous and egregious.”
And They’re Buying Off Moms
And not just any moms, but that most hardline, and influential, segment of moms: the mommy bloggers. A well-established force to be reckoned with, the legions of moms who spend a part of their day airing grievances, telling anecdotes, and sharing experiences via the web wield an indisputable sway over their audiences. Because why wouldn’t one mommy trust another?
Of course, McDonald’s is all over it—they regularly hire local influencer bloggers to host giveaways and publish favorable stories. While hiring influencers is a standard advertising and PR move in today’s world, doing so to get them to promote feeding children a meal that some health-care professionals have tangentially linked to the staggering rate of childhood obesity in the United States raises some interesting moral questions.
Free Food for Students
The first day of school can be hectic, so what better way to ingratiate yourself to busy parents—and kids under the age of 13—than with a free McMeal to kick off the school year? Of course, they hope that this convenience will become a part of the morning routine, and you’ll be back again and again. Some franchises do the same thing when students are undergoing standardized testing, like some in Houston, who offered free breakfast to teachers and students in third through eighth grade.
The fast-food chain isn’t shy about plans to infiltrate kid’s lives through the educational system. McDonald’s U.S. President Mike Andres reportedly said on a call with franchisees that their presence in schools was imperative to profits: “have got to be in schools…This is our heritage. And schools are a big part of it.”
But you know what? Despite their nefarious ways, people may well be getting too smart to be tricked or bought off for an occasionally toxic toy anymore. Long listed as a kid’s most favorite restaurant, McDonald’s has recently been punted down the line, supplanted by Chik-Fil-A. Overall sales have plummeted as well, until recently.
Attempting to rectify their reputation for being bottom of the barrel, they’ve promoted salads—which backfired a bit, when it was revealed some had more calories than a Big Mac—and even went cage-and-antibiotic-free with their chickens in the past year. Then there was swapping out toys in Happy Meals for books for a few weeks last winter, and the bold move to offer all-day breakfast, which paid off with stock reaching an all-time high soon after it rolled out last January.
And McDonald’s is reportedly the most popular place to eat in Rio’s Olympic Village, where they’re handing out supersized mountains of free food to athletes and coaches, a move so popular they had to limit it to 20 items per person.
As obesity continues to be a leading issue here in the United States, here’s hoping kids and, more importantly, parents, can learn to see through the propaganda and glad-handing to do what’s right for their health.