San Francisco’s Ban on Happy Meals Won’t Deter Lawsuit Accusing McDonald’s of ‘Brainwashing’ Kids

By Pete Winn | November 4, 2010 | 4:25 PM EDT

The White House is proposing an industry-led initiative to improve work force training partnerships with community colleges, paid for mostly by the participating companies, such as McDonald's. (AP File Photo)

( - The Center for Science in the Public Interest said Thursday it plans to go ahead with its lawsuit against McDonald’s to ban children's Happy Meals, which include free toys.

On Tuesday, San Francisco became the first major U.S. city to pass a law regulating the practice of giving away free toys with restaurant meals for children.

Stephen Gardner, litigation director for CSPI, told that his group applauds San Francisco’s action, but it won’t have any impact on the CSPI lawsuit, which is close to being filed.

“We have been talking with them (San Francisco) behind the scenes, encouraging them to move forward with this,” Gardner said. “It is a different piece of the puzzle than what our lawsuit will be, but it’s an important one.”

Gardner said he has lined up two plaintiffs -- a mother and a child -- and the details of when and where the lawsuit will be filed should be finalized in the next few weeks.

“The lawsuit is based on consumer protection laws, which say it is illegal to deceive consumers – in this case, children,” Gardner told

Happy Meals ads, Gardner claimed, are unfair to both children and parents.

“It’s a lay-down that children are deceived by this type of marketing because it’s not a theory but a scientific fact that young kids – 6, 4, even as high as 8 – do not understand advertising. They don’t know it’s advertising, their shields are not up and they just think it is a good message telling them to eat junk food. They are deceived,” he said.

“It is also unfair to their parents because it makes a parent’s job very hard and it inculcates a lifetime of Big Mac Attacks."

Gardner said the consumer activist group isn’t saying that parents don’t have a responsibility. “What we are saying is that it is also the responsibility of McDonald’s not to deceive our children. They both have responsibilities.”

Gardner accused McDonald’s of “effectively brainwashing” children.

“McDonald’s is ignoring its duty under consumer protection laws, so that it can market behind the parent’s back, effectively brainwashing the kid into being a little tiny viral marketer, going to the parents and making what may be a demand for the least of many evils, many problems that children face,” Gardner said.

McDonald’s is answering media inquiries with a statement.

“We are extremely disappointed with today's decision," McDonald's spokeswoman Danya Proud told "It’s not what our customers want, nor is it something they asked for. 

“Public opinion continues to be overwhelmingly against this misguided legislation," she said. “Parents tell us it's their right and responsibility -- not the government's - to make their own decisions and to choose what’s right for their children.

“Credible and objective research demonstrates this proposal is unrealistic based on data showing that most children rarely eat a meal as detailed by the proposed ordinance. 

“We are extremely proud of our Happy Meals which give our youngest guests wholesome food and toys of the highest quality. Getting a toy with a kid's meal is just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald's."

The new ordinance, which passed the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on an 8-to-3 vote, sets standards for when toys may be given out with food.

Under the new rules, toys could be given away to children only if the meals have fewer than 600 calories, contain fruits and vegetables, and include beverages without excessive fat or sugar. The ordinance takes effect on Dec. 1.