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McDonald's Happy Meals and other kids' fast food meals are under fire in SF.

McDonald's Happy Meals and other kids' fast food meals are under fire in SF.

The nanny-state central planners are working overtime again, and at a time when many families are struggling to put meals on the table, let alone holiday gifts under the tree, San Francisco city government has just passed a new ordinance that bans the inclusion of free toys in fast food kids meals that do not meet their tough anti-obesity standards. McDonald’s is the first to respond and they are doing a “workaround” — the previously free toys can now be purchased for 10 cents apiece. Other fast food chains will have to plan their own compliance measures.

Is childhood obesity good? Of course not. Should government at all levels be policing what each of us eats? Of course not. We would collectively be better off as individuals, and as a nation, if we weighed less, got more exercise, and were healthier overall. But we all need to eat to live, and the last time I checked, most of us also make a point of eating what we like and tastes good to us. Some of that carries more calories and fats than things that taste less good to us. McDonald’s would not be the global giant it is today if it were in the business of selling sprouts in Brussels and bean varieties.

Hollywood's love affair with Happy Meals toys represents collateral damage in anti-obesity fast-food wars.

Hollywood's love affair with Happy Meals toys represents collateral damage in anti-obesity fast-food wars.

There is something at best tone-deaf, and at worst mean-spirited, about punishing children to force fast food restaurants to take away toys that have been marketplace favorites for decades, all in the interest of better nutrition. Right goal, arguably, but definitely wrong strategy. Those crying the most may be Hollywood executives because McDonald’s has long had a marketing relationship in which Happy Meal toys have been used as promotional vehicles for kid-friendly and family films. Toy collectors are not going to be too pleased with this development (and multi-city trend) either.

Meanwhile, it is just smart business practice for McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants to market test menu items that offer healthier eating alternatives so that kids and parents have a choice in what they have to order. Fruit salads are never going to replace Big Macs in terms of overall sales, but that doesn’t mean people won’t order them when they are in the mood for that fare. Meanwhile, McDonald’s is always experimenting, even in marketing — this morning was the first time I have ever gotten a third-party e-mail coupon from McDonald’s. Think I will forward it to San Francisco city council and let them know what we, in the city of cheesesteaks and hoagies, prefer from our fast-food franchises.

Big Macs and Large Fries are still welcome in the City of Brotherly Love (and Meaty Sandwiches).

Big Macs and Large Fries are still welcome in the City of Brotherly Love (and Meaty Sandwiches).

Update: This new site is being promoted by McDonald’s via banner ads on LinkedIn. A listening tour is planned, so whether you are committed to current fare or new better nutritional options, speak now or forever hold your peace (peas) (mind your peas and Qs) (oh forget it).

Update 2: McDonald’s is a global brand, which means its Happy Meals headaches are not limited to San Francisco city council. This week, the government of Sao Paulo, Brazil is fining them $1.8 million for encouraging unhealthy eating habits in children. Google poverty in Brazil and you can see making sure kids are fed period still remains a challenge, so this fine seems to be a distraction from bigger issues at best.

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Before the Internet, before Facebook, before smartphones, local advertisers concentrated their ad budgets on TV and at least some of them felt they needed to work very hard to get noticed. Faux (or forced) insanity was the order of the day. The king of this method of advertising was Crazy Eddie, the NY metro area consumer electronics retail chain, that brought a heightened sense of urgency to take advantage of sale prices (and of Eddie himself) to everyone’s living room.

Not sure why the yelling announcer model became so popular, but it was employed by car dealers, restaurateurs, the Atco Speedway, and at least one local merchant in every city. In Philadelphia, Ben Krass made himself a hometown celebrity selling his Krass Brothers suits surrounded by a harem, usually in bikinis.  All of these “mad men” wanted to ensure that viewers didn’t miss their schtick by heading to the bathroom during program breaks.

It’s likely even then that mental illness advocacy groups lodged complaints about turning affliction into an attention grab. Most viewers, however, just found the spots obnoxious. Still, they did their job, created awareness and buzz for these businesses, and moved a lot of product.

Today, local advertisers would have to be truly loco to pass up the amazing range of online options for geo-targeting and reaching prospects and customers. They could save their vocal cords and save a lot of marketing budget dollars in the process. The array is dizzying. Local is the new focus of Google, which has hired local salespeople and repurposed its Local Business Center as Google Places. Businesses know that with so many spending so much time on Facebook, they need to be there with pages and ads. Yelp and Foursquare were ahead of the curve on helping advertisers build local followings. Groupon, Living Social, and in Philly Metro, Dealyo have bought couponing and promotions into the digital age. Then, with Microsoft Tags and QR Codes, retailers can build their own brick-and-click campaigns to generate sales with smartphone users.

Next week’s blog post is devoted to yet another local program/platform called Matchbin that gives local businesses a wide range of ways to connect with customers. So many choices for those looking for asylum from the crazy method of advertising.

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