Unhappy Meal: Study Proves Fast Food Commercials Prey On Children

A recent study by The Journal of Pediatrics found that kids who watched fast food commercials targeted at children requested fast food more often than the control group who watched non-targeted advertising. This conclusion seems so obvious at first glance, that it calls into question the entire scientific process of The Journal of Pediatrics — especially when there are so many more pressing matters facing children that merit clinical study.

Why is the sky blue?

Will there ever be a cure for cooties?

Why didn’t anybody show up at my tenth birthday party? (Author’s note: I’m doing totally fine now, in case anyone is wondering. Totally fine! I’m not haunted by that day in the least.)

Let’s look at the study’s conclusion one more time: advertising that’s designed to make kids eat cheeseburgers makes kids eat cheeseburgers. Well…no sh*t. The problem is that rather than relying on food, those commercials are exploiting one of children’s greatest weaknesses: toys. According to the study:

Researchers found that 37% of parents reported more frequent visits to the two fast food restaurants with child-directed TV ads. Fifty four percent of the children requested visits to at least one of the restaurants. Of the 29% who collected toys from the restaurants, almost 83% requested to visit one or both of the restaurants.

Simply put, kids love toys. Fast food companies know this, and they have used this knowledge to lure kids into their restaurants for decades. In fact, McDonald’s drops so many trinkets in their Happy Meals that they are the largest toy distributer in the world.

Even though McDonald’s and Burger King have made overtures to reduce their commercials targeting children (and to their credit Burger King has appeared to follow through), the problem still persists. As recently as last May, McDonald’s was censored by the Children’s Advertising Review Unit for a commercial that featured a “Teenie Beanie Baby Boo” more prominently than the food. Speaking from personal experience as a person who possessed his own robust collection of super-collectible, super-girlfriend repelling beanie babies in high school, those adorable lumps of foam pellets and donkey fur are specifically crafted to erode consumer judgment.

Kids don’t stand a chance against them.

Though The Journal of Pediatrics’ study focused primarily on toys as the key culprit in the irresistible marketing campaigns, perhaps they missed the real villain. Because fast food commercials are doing something even more diabolical (and effective) than toy-based advertising now.

Let’s take a little trip through time with three YouTube videos:

At first, the Happy Meal commercials were not directed at kids. In fact, most of the thirty seconds of screen time was filled with a lady talking at the TV, and she wasn’t even wearing so much as a single sock puppet. This commercial seemed specifically designed to make kids tune out. Maybe that was even the point; the commercial wasn’t targeted at kids, it was targeted at the parents. Because for one brief, naïve moment, McDonald’s thought that family finances were controlled by anyone other than whining children.

McDonald’s soon learned their lesson about the power of the Happy Meal and their true target for the ad campaign. Just look at this commercial from 1986.

I was 4 years old when that commercial came out. I don’t remember seeing that exact commercial, but I remember seeing many just like it. I also remember constantly bugging my parents to take me to those fast food restaurants. This was partly for the cheeseburgers but I also remember wanting to go to McDonald’s so I could hang out with those friendly burger and fry muppets. Because those commercials lead me to believe that sort of thing happened at McDonald’s, and that’s exactly what my 4-year-old brain wanted to believe. (It should also be noted that 4-year-old me was not setting the world on fire with my preschool entrance exams. Excepting, of course, for Body Mass Index.)

Those commercials created a world that was fun and magical and populated with enough felt-skinned friends that I could look past the dude in clown makeup. Unfortunately, every McDonald’s I ever went to as a child was neither fun nor magical, and the ball pit smelled like old socks and new pee. But I could always soothe this disappointment with a Happy Meal burger. Then I would get to the toy, and I would forget why I was even sad in the first place. It should also be noted that the toy being offered in the commercial was a bucket. An actual bucket. Because that’s precisely how starved for entertainment children were in a pre-internet America.

Now let’s move forward almost thirty years.

This commercial aired in 2015. There is no more Ronald McDonald. Because after decades of anecdotal evidence and (presumably) millions in market research, the company finally learned that clowns are goddamn terrifying and “goddamn terrified” is not the ideal emotional state for someone to enjoy a Filet-O-Fish.

But what the commercial does have is very interesting. The Happy Meals are now represented by two mischievous, anthropomorphic food boxes that are getting way more excited about yogurt than anyone should ever get about yogurt. And I’m not saying the Happy Meal box guys are rip-offs of the Minions (due to reasons of McDonald’s having very many lawyers, and me having spent very many minutes thinking about signing up for a Legalzoom account once) but just like the Minions they are loud and they are energetic and they are exactly the sort of gibberish-spouting, mule-toothed, universally-appealing mascots that seem almost cynically designed for children to love.

There have clearly been some changes since the 1979 and 1986 commercials, because the healthier choice of yogurt is now prominently featured in the Happy Meal (which still contains McNuggets, fries, and an apple juice that is basically flat soda in the nutritional sense), but this commercial is just as diabolically crafted to snare the hearts and stomachs of children as the one from 1986. If anything, those old child-baiting techniques have been perfected.

Because after an extended twirling routine with a Go-gurt stick, one of the zany Happy Meal guys walks through a magical portal and is transported into the world of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Except now that living Happy Meal box has a beautiful mane, and the ponies think their new box-horse visitor is an awesome addition to the party. After they fill up on that Go-gurt and sugar juice, they’ll all likely be off for friendship-affirming adventures in Equestria.

In this commercial, the zany Happy Meal box is no longer just a corporate mascot; they are the close, personal friends of the My Little Pony crew. Millions of children love that cartoon; if Twilight Sparkle says that McDonald’s is cool, then how can those kids disagree? And this doesn’t even factor the hordes of adult bronies, who should have the common sense to be immune to this advertising, but likely are not. Because bronies.

For a minute, let’s forget about the implications of cloven herbivores endorsing a restaurant that sells the charbroiled carcasses of other cloven herbivores, and let’s focus on the real issue here: kids. Fast food companies shouldn’t direct their advertising at children, because those advertisements work too well, kids manipulate their parents (did you hear the voice in the third vid urge kids, “when YOU choose…”?), parents cave (we should address this too, at some point), and children get the thing they want, which they really shouldn’t be eating. I don’t think the fast food companies should stop these advertisements because the government compels them, or parental groups censor them, or because any outside agency forces them to do so. They should stop because it’s the right thing to do.

But since “corporate responsibility” is a phrase connected to fast food restaurants almost as infrequently as “clean bathrooms” and “not stoned employees,” McDonald’s will likely continue to advertise to children. But if they’re going to keep preying on the mushy brains of impressionable kids, I hope they will at least have the decency to do so with a little panache and theatrical flair once again like they did in the era of this product placement: