San Francisco Board of Governors and McDonald’s in a Food Fight

The San Francisco Board of Governors recently voted to prohibit McDonald's from selling Happy Meals with a toy unless the contents of the Happy Meal meet certain criteria: it contains less than 600 calories, includes fruit and vegetables, and has no more than 35% fat content.  In my opinion this action by the Board is misguided, ineffective, disruptive to business, and a waste of government resources (e.g. time and money). I give them some credit for being concerned given the current level of childhood obesity in America but the praise stops there.  One of the supervisors said that critics should not dismiss the legislation as a nutty effort by San Franciscans, but that is exactly what it is. 

In my opinion, having studied and observed behavior for more than 40 years, several things will happen with this decision; 1) Many children will not want the meal if all they have to eat is fruit and vegetables. 2) Some children will say they want the meal but will pull the toy out and whine for a cheeseburger and fries, challenging the parents to break down and buy the fatty food knowing that at least their child will have eaten something. 3) Some few children will eat the Happy Meal but will later load up on the calories and fat at other establishments or at home.  None of this will accomplish the intended outcome. Do members of the Board not remember when cereal boxes came with a toy on the bottom? 

The intended consequence was, “eat all the cereal and then you can have the toy.”  Children always seemed to out-fox their parents on this one.  They quickly learned that there is more than one way to skin a cat or in this case, get a prize without eating the cereal.  They could open the box from the bottom and get the prize; pour out the cereal, get the prize and put the cereal back with the parents none the wiser.  They could even whine or beg the parent to get the prize for them which was usually effective. Something the Board has not considered I am sure is how to regulate contingency management by the parents. 

Some parents will do it right by saying, “You can have the toy after you eat the (healthy) Happy Meal” and then not buy them any other “forbidden food.”  Many, if not most, will not manage it well. This Board action is well intended but to effectively change behavior you cannot operate with the mind set of “Let’s make them behave by punishing those who don’t.”  One of my favorite old sayings is, “Change a man against his will, he is of the same opinion still.”  Why don’t they ever think of making behavior change a positive event? Children can be taught to eat healthy foods.  The way you do it is to reward children for making healthy choices.  McDonald’s provides neither the time nor the place to do it.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.