After months of threats, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has sued Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s Corp., alleging that its practice of giving toys with children’s meals is deceptive advertising.
The organization garnered a slew of media attention last summer when it threatened to sue McDonald’s, claiming that the toys constitute a method of circumventing parental control and teaching children unhealthy eating from a early age.
The complaint, filed Wednesday in the Superior Court of California in and for San Francisco County, alleges unfair competition and false advertising.
According to the complaint, “McDonald’s exploits very young California children and harms their health by advertising unhealthy Happy Meals with toys directly to them.” Additionally, “children 8 years old and younger do not have the cognitive skills and the developmental maturity to understand the persuasive intent of marketing and advertising.”
In a call with reporters, plaintiff Monet Parham, a Sacramento, Calif., mother of two, said she was bringing the case because of the constant requests for McDonald’s Happy Meals.
“I don’t think it’s OK to entice children with Happy Meals with the promise of a toy,” she said, adding that she tries to limit her daughters, 6 and 2, to monthly visits. But she said the requests increased this summer, thanks to the popularity of “Shrek Forever After” and the idea of collecting all of the toys, which would require weekly visits.
“Needless to say, my answer was ‘no,’” she said. “And as usual, pouting ensued and a little bit of a disagreement between us. This doesn’t stop with one request. It’s truly a litany of requests.”
In a statement, McDonalds spokeswoman Bridget Coffing said that the company is proud of its Happy Meals and intends to “vigorously defend our brand, our reputation and our food.”
“We listen to our customers, and parents consistently tell us they approve of our Happy Meals,” Coffing said. “We are confident that parents understand and appreciate that Happy Meals are a fun treat, with quality, right-sized food choices for their children that can fit into a balanced diet.”
The company didn’t comment further.
In the past, the McDonald’s executives have said that the vast majority of its customers support Happy Meals and are not offended by the toys associated with the product.
In recent years, the fast-food chain has also upgraded the health profile of kids’ meals, making chicken nuggets with white meat and offering apple slices with caramel sauce as an alternative to french fries. The company has admitted, however, that the hamburger-and-fry meals remain the most popular.
Stephen Gardner, the Center for Science in the Public Interest director of litigation, said in an interview that the group knows McDonald’s isn’t the only fast-food chain that sells meals with toys, but “they are the biggest.”
Gardner said that the group has approached McDonald’s several times to resolve its issues outside of court, but that the company had “stonewalled them.”
“We’re not trying to force McDonald’s to sell apples and sprouts,” Gardner said. “We’re just trying to stop McDonalds from marketing to 3-year-olds.”
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