Public pressure aimed at convincing a corporation to change its business practices can be a good thing. Take fast food restaurants, for example. For years consumer activist groups have criticized these companies for targeting their marketing to children (i.e. including toys with kids' meals), for their unhealthy menu options and even for being the root cause of the nationwide epidemic in childhood obesity.
In response to this public outcry many of these corporations are now offering some healthier choices on their menus and post nutritional information so consumers can make informed decisions. These are definitely steps in the right direction.
In that same vein, McDonald's Corporation plans to distribute more than 20 million paperback books inside its Happy Meals, instead of toys, during the two-week period between Nov. 1 and 14. Plus, McDonald's will partner with literacy non-profit Reading Is Fundamental to give out an additional 100,000 books. The Nov. 1 roll-out is a tie-in with National Family Literacy Day.
"Happy Meals fun for kids can be used to educate and inspire good choices," McDonald's spokeswoman Lisa McComb said in a statement.
The four books are based on McDonald's own animated animals, including a goat, ant, dodo bird and a dinosaur. The books will focus on nutrition, imagination and active play. For example, "The Goat Who Ate Everything" is about a goat who has a big appetite and struggles to eat smart. But when he finally does, he feels great and becomes the playful kid who everyone loves.
But not everyone is impressed. "It's definitely more of the same," says Jesse Bragg, spokesman for corporate watchdog group Corporate Accountability. "It's just a way to get their brand in front of kids in a very subversive way."
He says the books, which talk about nutrition and healthy eating, also might confuse kids and lead them to believe that fast food is healthy for them. "But we all know that fast food is a big driver of childhood obesity."
He may have a point. On the parenting website Circle of Moms, some posters take issue with this self-promotional campaign: "People are actually talking about books in Happy Meals? How about changing the meal into a ‘healthy meal!' My son has never been there and I hope he will never ever eat at McDonald's in his life time!"
The majority of posters, however, think the advocacy groups need to lighten up a bit. They support the switch from toys to books, acknowledge that McDonald's has a right to market its product, and put the blame for childhood obesity where it belongs -- on the parents themselves.
"Everyone self promotes, it's a business after all," wrote one parent, who added, "Why not make a fun book that they want to read. I love any chance my child has to read."
Another parent wrote: "So maybe McDonald's is marketing to our children, but who makes the decisions in your household? You or your child? It's just like the supermarket placing sugary cereals at children's eye level, but as a parent I know how to say no!"
And yet another: "I am tired of others telling businesses how they have to do things as it should be about personal responsibility. You and I are the parents of our children, we know how active they are, what is good for them and how to say NO. So those who want to have the government take over and micromanage raising our kids now, right down to what we feed them, need to look up that definition on personal responsibility because it is not McDonalds responsibility to nourish our children, it's ours as parents."
The bottom line is, it's up to parents to decide if they will allow their children to eat at McDonald's every once in a while as a special treat (in moderation of course). And we agree that including a book with the Happy Meal to encourage literacy is definitely better than some cheap plastic toy, even if the book is subliminal advertising for McDonald's.
In fact, that would give parents the perfect opportunity to have a discussion with their children about how such target marketing is used to entice them to a particular product, and about truth (or lack thereof) in advertising. After all, there's no way we can shield our children from all forms of commercialism. What we can do is give them the tools they need to recognize it for what it is and learn how to make their own informed decisions.