A Cook's Diary

McDonald’s Happy Meal and other marketing gimmicks

With the rising incidence of obesity among children in the U.S., a group is calling for “an end to commercialization of childhood.” A case of luring kids to eat junk food by enticing them with toys. The most recent target is McDonald’s Happy Meal. It ought to be a global campaign. And every food company guilty of the practice should be targeted — including makers of breakfast cereals who like to occasionally include a toy inside the box.

We’ve been there, believe me. There was a time when the girls would whine for a Happy Meal just to get the toy inside. Fortunately, that phase was short-lived. Very short-lived. Don’t encourage it and they stop whining after a while and they collected something like five toys throughout their childhood (well, excluding the ones that the doting grandmother — my mother — supplied). My belief: buy food because you want to eat it, not for something associated with it. In the first place, the toy inside a Happy Meal isn’t free. The meal is so packaged so that the customer pays for the toy. So, never mind the freebie mentality.

But, more than that, I have a thing against mixing eating with playing. I never felt comfortable with the set-up of having a playground inside a restaurant. Kids have a right to their time for play but not during meal time. I honestly cannot remember a time when my daughters ventured inside one of those plastic playgrounds.

The sad truth, of course, is that such a set-up — Happy Meals and plastic playgrounds — have become the norm. And it’s not like the marketing strategy is new nor unique. It is something that has been employed by just about every business entity. No, not the toys, but the illogical association which, ironically, makes a product more beguiling to consumers.

You don’t believe me? Try this. Why are alcohol ads crammed with half-naked women? Because the message is that drinking is a manly thing and that is attractive to women. Argumentum ad hominem, obviously, but will consumers notice? The businessman knows they won’t — he has hired a psychologist who has studied the behavioral patterns of consumers and this expensive hachet man assures him that since time immemorial, there are foolproof formulas — all based on logical fallacies, believe it or not — that prove how easy it is to manipulate consumer trends. Today’s fast food chains, including McDonald’s with its Happy Meal, are just applying the principles of those foolproof formulas.

Formulas. Yes, plural. Let’s have another example. Why do companies pay millions to celebrity endorsers?

You have Aga Muhlach for Jollibee, Piolo Pascual for Max’s Chicken, Kris Aquino for Vicki Belo, KC Concepcion for some shampoo that I can’t recall right now. And we all know this is a global practice. You remember that Toyota Altis ad with Brad Pitt? Cosmetic companies hire the most beautiful models and actresses. Sporting goods companies choose — who else? — top athletes.

Why? Are these people experts? Are Muhlach and Pascual, for instance, credible gourmands? Is Brad Pitt well versed in auto matters? No and no. But they manage to sell the products they endorse. Why? This is not even an example of “appeal to authority” (a fallacy of defective induction) because consumers know that these personalities are not authorities when it comes to the products that they endorse. Yet, still…

And it makes me wonder. Is the average consumer simply too gullible and malleable? Is a certain level of education necessary to be able to discern? Or is it just a matter of common sense?

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