A Happy Meal without a toy is, well, just a meal. However, McDonald's (MCD) has found a clever way to keep peddling Happy Meals in San Francisco, despite the city's having outlawed free promotional toys with meals that fail to meet certain nutritional requirements.
The trinket-banning law went into effect Thursday, and here's McDonald's response: Parents will have to request the toys, which will add an extra dime to Happy Meal prices. McDonald's will then donate those dimes to the Ronald McDonald House of San Francisco. (McDonald's Ronald McDonald House program provides support to families of sick children, as well as basic medical and dental care in some communities.)
Believe it or not, McDonald's Happy Meals actually do meet the law's requirement of having less than 600 calories. (They contain 500 calories.) The issue is that Happy Meals fall short of the law's standard for fruit and vegetable quotas. The San Francisco Department of Public Health doesn't count french fries as a vegetable.
McDonald's critics are correct to raise awareness of such matters as marketing to children and health issues with popular fast-food fare. However, picking on Happy Meals is a bit joyless, not to mention insulting to the entire concept of parental choice in kids' diets.
Although CNN quoted San Francisco City and County Supervisor Eric Mar acknowledging parental responsibility amid America's childhood obesity epidemic, he also mentioned fast-food companies' benefiting from kids' "pester power." I'm not sure what it says about America's future if "pester power" might be considered too "powerful" to combat.
McDonald's has found a way to preserve the toys and parental choice, and it's not even seeking to profit off the nominal fee it's now charging for the toys to avoid providing them "free." The fast-food giant may have made a brilliant checkmate here -- and has certainly painted its overzealous critics in a negative light.
Motley Fool analyst Alyce Lomax does not own shares of McDonald's.