Saturday, May 08, 2010

On Unintended Consequences and Happy Meals

PHUTATORIUS
Supervisors in Santa Clara County, California participated in America's great experiment of "laboratory federalism" last week by enacting a law that prohibits restaurants from providing toys with children's meals, unless the accompanying food meets certain nutritional standards.

Wow.
More...
The regulation, which for the sake of shorthand we'll call "the Unhappy Meal Law," only applies in areas where the county supervisors are the sovereign local authority — i.e., only in those pockets of land in Santa Clara County that are not incorporated into a city or town (which of course can pass their own laws). Thus, rather than entirely beat back the hordes of junk plastic movie tie-in action figures past the county lines, the law only makes Happy Meal toys a little less ubiquitous in fast food restaurants in the county. This will, of course, cause great confusion and consternation among Bay Area five-year-olds, who absent access to a GPS device, a county map, and an understanding of California's principles of local government and jurisdiction, won't know on a given day whether, where, or why they won't be getting a Mermaid Barbie doll with their cheeseburgers. And it's just this sort of random arrangement of cause and consequence that, according to behavioral psychologists, leads to "learned helplessness" and depression.

But hey — at least our kids won't be obese. At least that's the thinking, as county supervisors, applying the "Joe Camel principle," have concluded that Happy Meal toys draw children to fast-food restaurants, where they become tracked into the habit of eating unhealthy food.

Needless to say, I have some thoughts on this subject. Four fingers of thoughts, in fact:

☞ McDonald's introduced the Happy Meal in 1979. I remember when this happened. My father took me to McDonald's every Saturday. It was one of my favorite things in the whole world. Then one day I got to McDonald's, I read the menu, and I realized that not only was I going to get a burger and fries for lunch, but I was going to get a toy, too. And McDonald's became even more awesome.

Because I went to McDonald's, as a child, both before and after McDonald's launched the Happy Meal, I can count myself as something of an authority on the drawing effect of Happy Meal toys. As I recall my state of mind in the Pre-Happy Meal Era, I always frickin' wanted to go to McDonald's for lunch. And of course, in the Happy Meal Era, I always frickin' wanted to go to McDonald's for lunch. Check my math, Mithridates, but as I calculate this, the net drawing effect of Happy Meal toys = 0. Zero.

☞ Whether or not I actually did go to McDonald's for lunch as a child was a question that turned not so much on what I wanted to do, but on what my parents wanted to do. And of course, now that I'm fully grown with children of my own, I'm the one who gets to make the call on whether my children get to go to McDonald's. So now that we've dispensed with the notion that Happy Meal toys make children marginally and meaningfully more interested in McDonald's, it seems worthwhile to cover the effect of the toys on parents' decisions.

OH MY GOD LET'S PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE GET RID OF THE HAPPY MEAL TOYS SO I CAN EAT MORE BIG MACS WITHOUT JUNKING UP MY HOUSE!!!!

[deep breath]

Yes, um, where were we? Oh, right: I always frickin' want to go to McDonald's for lunch. But if I'm with the kids, then they're of course going to come along, and that means I'm going to bring home more godawful nine-cent hunks of plastic that will, without fail, find their way into my bed, into my bathtub, under foot as I walk through the dark into the bathroom, between couch cushions for me to sit on. So yes, if anything, the Happy Meal toys actually reduce my interest in taking the kids to McDonald's. Seriously.

☞ Anyone who has actually given a child a Happy Meal knows that the accompanying toy actually reduces the amount of food the child will ingest. The logic is simple: if you give a kid a big pile of greasy, delicious junk food, he'll eat it. If you give the kid the same big pile of greasy, delicious junk food and a toy, he'll find himself torn between eating the junk food and playing with the toy. If you withhold the toy until the kid is done with his lunch, he will in most cases prematurely declare the lunch finished and actually allow you to throw out his McNuggets and fries so that he can get a crack at the toy.

I've seen this dynamic at work: just today I took The Boy to McDonald's. No toy, I said, until we got into the car. The Boy ate one McNugget and insisted that lunch was over. I told him that we were going to sit for a few more minutes ("for our digestion") before leaving. If he wanted to have some more lunch during that time, he was welcome to do so. The Boy ate two more McNuggets and a fistful of fries. Q.E. freakin' D.

☞ Finally, consider how McDonald's might respond to the Unhappy Meal law. If McDonald's accepts, as Santa Clara County does (and I don't), that Happy Meal toys make their restaurant more attractive to children, and therefore families, then they'll have to find some other way to market to children. Deprived of the ability to offer collateral inducements, they'll have to beef up (pun intended) their food offerings. And since it's axiomatic that food is more appealing when it tastes better, and that the worse food is for you, the better it tastes — well, McDonald's now has an incentive to make its food even greasy, junkier, and more delicious. And/or cheaper.

I could talk more about how a county restriction means city kids get toys and country kids don't, how the Unhappy Meal law seems entirely predicated on the suggestion that parents don't know how to say no to their children, and so on. But it ought to be enough to note that either the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors don't have kids and never were kids, or they just didn't think this one through.

5 comments:

Mithridates said...

I remember the first Happy Meals. It was a day of great joy. No one wanted anything at McDonald's other than a Happy Meal for the longest time. This meant we got Happy Meals, which didn't have much food as the orders we used to get.

Yeah, let's make our kids less obese by depriving them of simple joys.

Morons!

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