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Consumer insights: Kid stuff

Premium-laden kids' meals is a billion-dollar business. But what do the parents think?

While it's a claim that's nearly impossible to defend, the Arctic Circle chain says it was the first burger chain in America to offer a kids' meal. That was back in the 1950s. Imitation being the soul of American entrepreneurship, the kids' meal soon appeared on the menu boards of other chains, too, and somewhere along the line, a toy became part of the package. None of this got much attention until 1977, when Burger King decided to feature a premium tie-in to a certain film—one which some in Hollywood predicted would be a flop. The film was called "Star Wars."

You can figure out the rest. Today, no restaurant-chain marketing executive could keep his job without slating a roster full of toys—usually tied to a current film or TV show—to go with the meal deals for tots. And by now, nobody questions the business wisdom of doing so. Kids marketing is a billion-dollar business by many estimates, and the logic is crisp and clear: Kids see the toy meals advertised, beg their parents for them, and the parents acquiesce.

But while the chains stay focused on what they call educating the customers of tomorrow, some no doubt forget that all those parents happen to also be the customers of today. What do they think of the toys in kids' meals? Could it be that restaurants are appealing to the next generation of consumers using tactics that very much tick off the current generation of them?

That assertion is, perhaps, too strong and too general. But some recent research does suggest that parents' view of toy-filled kids' meals—and, by association, the chains that sell them—is, at best, dubious.

Why, exactly, do parents buy kids' meals containing toys? Well, there's the intellectual explanation, then the real-world one. According to researchers M.B. Schwartz and R. Phul at the Yale University Department of Psychology, many parents feel they have little control over whether their children will eat and enjoy certain foods. They also cite a study that showed that many parents focus more on providing food that is enjoyable rather than making food decisions based solely on nutritional content. Hence, parents see "Kids Fun Meal" (or some such) and the stress-free sale is made.

But common sense alone illustrates some of this. Most kids' meals end up getting purchased via something variously called the "nag factor" and "pester power"—kids whine for the toy they want, and parents given in to keep them quiet. Some research has shown that up to one-third of family trips to fast-food chains are driven by nagging. But now to the point at hand: Can chains, then, expect parents of cajoling pouters to view the toy-vending restaurants favorably?

They shouldn't. Take a look at what some parents had to say in various internet chatrooms devoted to kids' meals:

Darlene: "I have refused to buy kids pack meals because they never seem to eat all of the meal and just want the toy, which I then end up throwing out because they lose interest in them so fast!"

KarlaB: "We always buy the kids meals, but the toys are soon lost or forgotten."

TXMom: "I bought a Happy Meal for [my child's] lunch, and the toy is already in the trash."

Mickey: "He plays with the toy for 20 seconds and that's the end of it."

Christopher: "If you take a trip to McDonald's, you'll get a monthly free toy inside—actually, it's not free, since the meal itself costs money."

Stevekoe: "Restaurants offer kids' meals at a loss just to get the parents in the door to spend money."

As far as promoting a good brand image goes, such testimonials suggest there's something lacking. It seems difficult to believe that fast-food chains are unaware that they could be rankling parents with these promotions, and more reasonable to conclude that the revenue generated by cross-promotions is simply too great to ignore.

But pressure has been mounting. Not only are parents hardly naïve about the marketing machinations behind kids' meal toy promotions, but some consumer groups have weighed in as well. Consumers Union, probably the most respected customer-advocacy organization in America, has taken direct aim at fast-food toy promos on its web site: "When [advertising] encourages kids to want products without regard for their attributes... kids are being misled. The target is a child. The problem, as we see it, is the immense pressure to purchase." (Objections to kids' meal marketing is not limited to the U.S. Back in 2001, the Finnish Consumer Ombudsman dragged McDonald's to court regarding "whether the main message of an ad for a children's hamburger meal can be a toy.")

But the apparent angst and cynicism of many parents toward kids' meal toys goes beyond a sort of gallows humor associated with being forced to spend money to keep a brat quiet in the back seat.

In recent years, fast-food giveaway toys have been the subject of numerous product recalls. Between 1999 and 2002, restaurant chains were forced to recall some 33 million toys that proved dangerous to kids. Not only do such recalls further risk tarnishing a brand's image in the eyes of adult consumers but, in many cases, the toys themselves can do serious harm. The chain that assumes, for example, that an adult will supervise a child playing with a kids' meal toy does so at its own peril.

Researchers Sara B. Brown and Tonya L. Smith Jackson of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute conducted a study of 60 parents who went into a fast-food restaurant to purchase a kids' meal that included a toy. They found that 72% of parents threw away the toys' child-protective warnings without even reading them. "With over half of the children in this study retrieving the toy from the bag, very little supervision focused on preventing hazards introduced by children's meal toys is being provided," the researchers concluded.

And then there's the nature of the toys themselves. In an age in which education assumes an ever more publicized role in the lives of children, goofy toys aren't categorically viewed as the harmless distraction they might have been at one time. Back in 1997, the Chick-fil-A chain rolled out kids' meals containing premiums that, rather than flog the latest blockbuster, were educational—promoting personality development or encouraging family interaction. While the idea that a give-away toy from a fast-food drive-thru could have intellectual merit might seem laughable to some people, one recent study suggests that the strategy (since imitated by other chains) could be dead-on.

A survey conducted by International Communications Research found that a whopping 91% of parents believed it was important to give gifts that encouraged learning, while more than half of the same respondents (55%) confessed to having trouble determining which toys would really help their kids to learn. Statistics such as these are no doubt behind the thinking of some chains now offering more cerebrally driven premiums, such as Subway's 2003 promo of Kids' Paks based on Guinness Book of World Records holders. The meals included toys such as a timer, a tape measure, and a supersonic glider. There are no doubt those parents who'd still consider any giveaway premium a piece of junk, but a toy that purportedly teaches kids about split-second finish-line timing is still likely to win more approval than your average space alien action figure.

Speaking of those, Burger King is again on board with the latest (and supposedly last) "Star Wars" film (in 1977 it gave away drinking glasses; today, it's action figures). While some have protested the giveaways due to the film's PG-13 rating, one parent—Donna of Metuchen, NJ—tells the Christianity Today web site something she likes about kids' meal toys: "We often had four identical premiums lying around the house. Now some of my kids donate their unopened toys to a large box in the linen closet. By Christmas, we have enough toys to fill stockings for less fortunate kids."

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