The Trouble with Happiness

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Last month, a group of mom’s gathered at McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting demanding the company stop predatory marketing to kids.  While they don’t like to admit it, the company uses a variety of strategies to target young people.  In school, your child might receive a visit from Ronald McDonald to learn about bullying.  At home, your child might see a TV commercial about their favorite toys now available in Happy Meals.  And have you seen HappyMeal.com?

In the new documentary, Fed Up, the filmmakers show McDonald’s executive, Shelly Rosen, stating:

Ronald McDonald never sells to children — he informs and inspires through magic and fun.


Not surprisingly, this boldfaced lie has been getting roars of laughter from audiences across the country, but her statement illustrates an even bigger problem with the way McDonald’s and other junk food companies market to children.  As our country stands in the middle of an obesity crisis, isn’t teaching kids to associate unhealthy foods with happiness a bit dangerous to their health? Of course it is. But, it’s also profitable.


One of the moms standing at the doors of McDonald’s headquarters, was Leah Segedie, a health advocate and blogger, who once struggled with an eating disorder. When she told McDonald’s CEO, Don Thompson, that her childhood association of Happy Meal’s and happiness contributed to her disordered eating patterns, and subsequent weight gain, he laughed at her.

McDonald’s isn’t the only food company known for associating it’s products with happiness. This marketing strategy has also worked well for Coca-Cola.

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The soda giant claims they never target children with marketing, yet they ran this commercial during last year’s super bowl.


Not only does it convey the message that Coke equals happiness, but also that children should be rewarded with sugar.  Never mind that the little boy in the commercial would have to run for a full hour and 15 minutes before he would burn off the calories in just one 20 ounce Coke.

Junk food companies want you to think these “happiness” campaigns are just a harmless tactic for promoting products, but they may also teach kids to start associating unhealthy foods with certain moods.  When you are feeling down, for instance, it’s okay to reach for a cheeseburger to make you feel better.  When you are feeling proud of yourself for an accomplishment, go ahead and reward yourself with a sugary drink.  Just the name “Happy Meal” can easily convince a young child that burgers and fries will make them happy.

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With food companies spending nearly 2 billion per year targeting children, our nation’s kids are being bombarded with messages that encourage unhealthy habits. It’s bad enough that these messages have the power to impact children’s food preferences, but they can also influence lifelong eating behaviors, as was the case for Leah Segedie.

If Big Food was really interested in our happiness, they would stop putting profits ahead of children’s health.

McWeight-Loss: Oh, Please.

At it’s most recent annual shareholders meeting, McDonald’s was once again faced with criticism that it is a purveyor of junk food that markets to children.  Speakers from the advocacy group, Corporate Accountability International, health professionals, parents and 9-year-old Hannah Robertson used the meeting as a means to confront CEO, Don Thompson about the companies poor practices.  Thompson went to great lengths to defend the company, mostly with outright lies about how the company sells ‘high-quality’ products and doesn’t market to children.

Michele Simon, public health lawyer and the author of the book Appetite for Profit countered his arguments in this outstanding blog post titled,  Top 10 lies told by McDonald’s CEO at annual shareholders’ meeting. It is a must read.

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Riding on the heels of this altercation, I was shocked and disgusted to discover Thompson’s latest attempt to protect McDonald’s image.  Over the last few days, several media outlets have been reporting news of the CEO’s alleged  ’20 pound weight loss’ which he claims included daily consumption of McDonald’s food.

As you might have noticed from my previous post on Coca-Cola, when the junk food industry starts handing out diet advice and weight loss tips, it really gets my blood boiling.  All they are doing is making attempts to clean up their image, sell more products, and distract the public from the fact that the products they create, by-and-large, are detrimental to our health.

How can Thompson, in good conscience, talk about eating McDonald’s and losing weight while simultaneously introducing products like the Mega Potato in Japan? This ‘side item’ is the equivalent of two large fries stuffed into one container and packs 1,142 calories (the largest amount of calories any single McDonald’s item has contained in the company’s history.)

The fact is, the majority of the food in McDonald’s product portfolio contains ingredients that are high in fat, sugar and salt, and low in fiber and vitamins. McDonald’s food also contains many chemical additives, including propylene glycol (a less toxic version of anti-freeze), and azodicarbonamide (most commonly used in the production of foamed plastics.)

Losing weight isn’t easy, especially when we are constantly being handed conflicting advice about how to do it.  Maybe Thompson did lose some weight; he is not the first person to claim that it can be done while eating fast food.  But, weight loss is not equivalent to being healthy.  If he ate less calories and exercised (as he claims), then yes, weight-loss is possible even when you are eating a lousy diet.  But, that doesn’t mean you should do it.