Well, the nattering nutrition nannies are at it again! The Center for Science in the Public Interest has sued McDonald's in a putative class action alleging consumer fraud. See Parham v. McDonald's Corp., Case No. ______, (Cal. Super. -- San Francisco Dec. 15, 2010) (Class Complaint).
What evil can such a corporate behemoth have perpetrated? Did it make any false statements in advertising? No, that's not alleged. Did it fail to disclose some questionable food additive? No, that's not alleged. So what is this awful thing that McDonald's has done?
It puts free toys in Happy Meals.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's the evil that CSPI has chosen to expend its resources on. Toys in Happy Meals.
A Happy Meal, for those of us who don't have kids, consists of a hamburger, cheeseburger, or 4 chicken McNuggets with a side (small fries or apple slices that can be dipped in a caramel sauce) and a drink (soft drink, low-fat milk, or apple juice).
Happy Meals don't make CSPI happy. It claims they have too many calories, saturated fat, sugars, and sodium, and not enough complex carbohydrates (because McDonald's uses white flour, rather than whole wheat flour, in its buns).
So what's so wrong about putting toys in Happy Meals, you ask? Well, it makes kids want them. And that, according to CSPI, is inherently deceptive.
Here's the basic argument from CSPI's complaint:
1. Children 8 and under don't understand that advertising is trying to persuade them.
2. The FTC says advertising to adults that does not disclose that it is advertising designed to persuade is inherently deceptive.
3. Thus, advertising to children 8 and under is inherently deceptive.
4. Such advertising -- particularly with toys -- interferes with parents' relationships with their kids because it causes the kids to nag the parents to got to McDonald's. When parents don't give in, it creates animosity. When they do, kids consume "unhealthy" meals.
Plaintiffs clearly have pled this complaint to avoid federal court. They assert a class of California parents and a class of California children (age 8 and under) who have seen Happy Meal marketing in the last 4 years. In an attempt to avoid CAFA removal, they seek only injunctive relief and disclaim any relief constituting restitution, penalties or damages. Compl. para. 20. (Given the rules against claim-splitting, that raises certain adequacy of representation concerns, doesn't it?) The complaint pleads that "the amount in controversy is far below $75,000 [and] [n]o matter how evaluated, the amount in controversy falls far short of $5,000,000." Id.
The complaint pleads two basic causes of action: violation of California's Unfair Competition Law and its Consumer Legal Remedies Act. Interestingly, the UCL claim appears to only rely on the "unlawful" prong, pleading a violation of the CLRA as a predicate violation for the UCL claim.
Here are the plaintiff-specific allegations for the plaintiff in this case:
94. Maya, age six, continually clamors to be taken to McDonald's "for the toys."
95. Maya and other members of the Children Class have been deceived by McDonald's marketing practices.
96. Maya does not understand that McDonald's marketing efforts are intended to make her want to eat Happy Meals. Maya interprets this marketing as good advice for proper eating.
97. Often, Maya wants Happy Meals because toys based on trusted characters from television and movies (such as Shrek) endorse the Happy Meals in McDonald's advertising.
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100. McDonald's has unfairly influenced Maya. It's Happy Meals advertising aimed at Maya has influenced her desire to eat the poor-nutrition Happy Meals, thereby harming Maya's health without her knowledge or comprehension.
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103. . . . Maya's friends are McDonald's viral marketers.
104. Maya learns of Happy Meal toys from other children in her playgroup, despite [her Mother's] efforts to restrict Maya's exposure to McDonald's advertising and access to Happy Meal toys. This is McDonald's advertising directive -- to subvert parental authority and mobilize pester power in order to sell unhealthful meals to kids using the lure of a toy.
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107. Although [her Mother] frequently denies Maya's repeated requests for Happy Meals, these denials have angered and disappointed Maya, thus causing needless and unwarranted dissension in their parent-child relationship.
Compl. paras. 94-107.
Based on these allegations, plaintiffs want the court to "[e]njoin McDonald's from continuing to advertise Happy Meals to California children featuring toys."
CSPI's complaint fundamentally challenges whether any product manufacturer can lawfully advertise products to children. Under it's theory, no advertising to children would be lawful because children purportedly don't understand the concept of advertising. (Notably, there are many social science articles that discuss how young people actually do understand that advertisers are trying to persuade them.)
But the simple fact is that advertising to children -- which has been studied and considered by the Federal Trade Commission -- is lawful. It's also commercial speech protected by the First Amendment. And while activist groups like CSPI might like to turn off all media, home school our kids, and force them to eat like Euell Gibbons, no state's consumer fraud law allows them to impose such a viewpoint on the rest of us. Parents decide where and what their children ages 8 and under will eat, and there is no "deception" or falsehood in the advertising that plaintiffs complain about that prevents parents from making those decisions responsibly.
Let's hope the court that ultimately decides this lawsuit -- whether it is a federal court or state court -- will recognize that CSPI's suit requests a dangerous extension of consumer fraud statutes that has no basis in California law.