Nothing to make this a Happy Meal

Gareth MorganHealth

Of all the tools the fast food chains use to lure people through their doors, McDonald’s Happy Meal is the most cynical. With its bright packaging and free toy (at the moment they have Furbys for girls and Hot Wheels for boys), it is deliberately aimed at children. The burger chips and drink are almost incidental to the experience, however it all helps to build a lifetime of addiction, sorry, ‘brand loyalty’.

In fact, two thirds of food advertising is for crap (high sugar, high salt, high fat) foods, or what we call fake food, with around half of these from takeaway outlets.[i] Their tactic is, as we all know, pester power. Get the kids hooked and they will take care of the parents for you. Hence the free toys, the websites and games shamelessly targeting kids ( and the free burger vouchers for Player of the Day at kids sport matches. How many sports nutritionists recommend their charges eat burgers after the game?


Our youngest, most vulnerable citizens should not be open to the influence of pushers of any addictive substances; including fake food.

Currently Kiwis spend about $1.3b each year on takeaways, and much of this food is heavily advertised. Fast food and other energy-dense foods clock up over $200 million in advertising every year. The food industry argues that advertising doesn’t increase junk food sales overall, it only shuffles market share between brands — the identical argument, incidentally, that used to be advanced in defence of tobacco and alcohol advertising. Fast food companies like to point out that fish and chip shops do half the takeaway business in New Zealand, yet they don’t advertise at all.


The evidence, however, is that the food industry is telling deep-fried porkies. In 2006, the United States Institute of Medicine released a ground-breaking report which reached the conclusion that advertising did nudge children in an unhealthy direction. Since then, the experimental evidence has been piling up that advertising completely alters kids’ food preferences, it does far more than simply switching kiddies’ loyalty between brands. We know that advertising makes children eat more, particularly the ones that are already overweight or obese.[ii] One study even showed that you could make children eat more of anything by putting a McDonalds logo on it – even carrots.[iii]

adbusters_spoof_mcdonalds_in_everyoneSadly the economics are stacked against McDonalds turning into a salad restaurant. Food stripped of nutrients and loaded up with sugar, salt and fat is far cheaper to mass-produce, and keeps for longer. This means more money is left over to spend on fancy packaging and advertising. This is why you don’t see a lot of advertising from cabbage growers.

Nutritionally speaking the McDonalds burgers themselves aren’t so bad, if you are happy to overlook the highly refined bread bun, high fat content of the patty and all the sugar and salt in the sauces. Where things get really bad is with the fries and drink. These cheap added extras are almost entirely sugar, salt and fat, with little in there of nutritional merit. Each different flavour makes children crave the other.

Most parents want to put an end to pester power; a 2007 survey found more than four out of five wanted junk food advertising to children to be stopped.[iv] However, the Government has shown no enthusiasm to lend a hand. An Australian study has estimated that banning junk food advertising aimed at kids was the most cost-effective thing for government to do for childhood obesity. Clearly this is a big deal, the closest thing to a big bazooka that Government has on all matters food.

What is needed is a total ban on advertising aimed at kids for any foods that don’t meet sufficient nutrition criteria. This ban has to extend beyond television to include product placement, sponsorship, posters and the internet. For example, some 85% of New Zealand schools receive sponsorship, and unhealthy food sponsorship outnumbers that for healthy foods by 2:1.[v][vi] Incredibly, many youth sports sponsorships are also linked to alcohol and gambling. How sick is that? This may seem hardline, but we are talking about impressionable youngsters interacting with addictive substances. Let’s not kid ourselves: food companies are not benevolent benefactors with our kids’ best interests at heart.

Our youngest, most vulnerable citizens should not be open to the influence of pushers of any addictive substances; including fake food.


[i] Jenkin, G et al Identifying ‘unhealthy’ food advertising on television: a case study applying the UK Nutrient Profile model. Public Health Nutrition: 12(5), 614–623 doi:10.1017/S1368980008003029

[ii] Boyland EJ, et al Television advertising and branding: Effects on eating behaviour and food preferences in children. Appetite. 2012 Mar 12.

[iii] Robinson, T. N., Borzekowski, D. L. G., Matheson, D. M., & Kraemer, H. C. (2007). Effects of fast food branding on young children’s taste preferences. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 161, 792–797.

[iv] Phoenix Research. Survey of public opinions about advertising food to children; November 2007

[v] Richards, R et al Sponsorship and fund-raising in New Zealand schools: implications for health. Aust N Z J Public Health. 2005 Aug;29(4):331-6.

[vi] Maher, A et al Patterns of sports sponsorship by gambling, alcohol and food companies: an Internet survey BMC Public Health 2006, 6:95doi:10.1186/1471-2458-6-95


This blog is part of a series – “The twelve fake foods of Christmas”

We don’t want to get all bah humbug about your Christmas celebrations, after all this is the one time of year you should be able to let your hair down a bit and not feel guilty about it. But it is a good time to highlight some of the fake foods that can cause some damage if we get into the habit of eating them. We’ve particularly targeted the foods that are marketed to us as “healthy” in an effort to get us to eat them every day, when in fact they are complete junk and should be confined solely to the annual Christmas binge. 

Other posts:
12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.1: Cereal Killers

12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.2: Low Carb Beer Belly

12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.3: Chip on Your Shoulder

 12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.4: Gettin’ Saucey

12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.5: Just Juice?

Nothing to make this a Happy Meal was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Gareth Morgan
About the Author

Gareth Morgan

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Gareth Morgan is a New Zealand economist and commentator on public policy who in previous lives has been in business as an economic consultant, funds manager, and professional company director. He is also a motorcycle adventurer and philanthropist. Gareth and his wife Joanne have a charitable foundation, the Morgan Foundation, which has three main stands of philanthropic endeavour – public interest research, conservation and social investment.