It’s odd to me that the issue of little toys included with McDonald’s Happy Meals has raised a sense of consumer indignation. The corporate megalith covets young customers, not least because they have a whole lifetime for eating fast food, and consequently goes to all kinds of lengths to swiftly and surely draw our children in. Think indestructible plastic seating, the predictability of the salty/sweet food, the concept of a Happy Meal itself, the colourful boxes, the play centres, the mascot – we must not forget Ronald. Given this, what is it about the plastic trinket that is the rallying cry for ‘unfair marketing’?
I’m no fan of disposable plastic trinkets or sales ploys directed at children, but there are a host of other reasons to fret about McDonald’s. They span a broad spectrum, from basic concerns over animal cruelty (have you heard of the concentrated animal feeding operation? there is a very real cost to producing cheap meat), the consequences of mass potato farming, the conscious reduction of the worker’s role to ensure access to minimum-waged labour in the face of high employee turnover, the science behind the food, and the nutritional implications of the menu.
These and other topics are canvassed in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, which forever changed the way my husband and I look at places like McDonald’s. We also read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which journalist Michael Pollan traces the origins of four meals, including a fast food meal. It’s a positive romp through food politics, as entertaining as it is instructive.
We rarely ate fast food before, but after learning about the industry through these and other materials, we had to stop altogether. This means we have two boys, four and two, who have not yet crossed the golden arched threshold. Our family members respect our wishes when they take our kids out. It hasn’t been a big deal.
Some people may see this as an extreme position, perhaps as the withholding of childhood joys or rituals. These sentiments don’t move me. I’d rather help my children find their happiness and rites of passage according to our own values, rather than having them handed down by entities that hold no interest in who they are, but the spending dollars they represent.
I understand that my children will likely eat at McDonald’s one day, just as they will experiment with other experiences I may not favour. When they do, we’ll talk about the choices we’ve made as a family, and hope that those choices will help them define their own values over time. Plastic trinkets might enter the conversation, but they’ll just take up one small corner of it.