Web Takes Big Bite Out of Happy Meals Reboot

The announcement from McDonald's that it is adding apple slices and other kinds of produce to its Happy Meals and reducing the portion of French fries has produced a predictable amount of scorn on the Web. News sites and commenters have responded with sarcasm and skepticism, which McDonald's must have expected.

Yet McDonald's had little choice in reconfiguring its Happy Meals. It was under pressure from advocacy groups to focus more on nutrition, particularly with its products that are marketed at children. McDonald's has also faced some citywide bans on using toys as incentives to sell Happy Meals.

The company's press statement makes it clear that it intends to listen well to criticism of its food products and their effect on childhood obesity. Yes, this reboot of the Happy Meal has gone viral and sets up fast food in general as an easy target for jokes, but it's a classic case of outreach that cannot be bought.

There is no downside for McDonald's, really. From a health perspective, most kids will toss the apples aside, but they'll have fewer French fries to eat. And from a branding perspective, McDonald's has emerged as a company that considers its customers—and obesity advocacy groups—to be stakeholders instead of mere consumers.

Sheila Consaul, director, communication strategies, for technology resource company BRTRC, says the announcement itself and the actual change to Happy Meals is only going to benefit McDonald's, its customers, reputation and sales.

"This change shows McDonald's is listening to the experts—i.e. that they need to do something about the content of Happy Meals in order to positively impact children’s health—while still providing a multitude of choices for parents," says Consaul, who wrote about crisis communications in the latest edition of PR News' Media Training Guidebook. "Choice is really what’s going to drive better eating habits, not necessarily the specific food content of a Happy Meal."

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