Fiction Addiction
Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: Would you like literacy with your Happy Meal?

McDonald's strategy of handing out books instead of toys with their Happy Meals is designed to make fast food more attractive to children.
Photo / Thinkstock
McDonald's strategy of handing out books instead of toys with their Happy Meals is designed to make fast food more attractive to children. Photo / Thinkstock

What's worse for children: being loaded up with burgers and fries, or being starved of books?

That debate has been raging in Britain for the last week, ever since McDonald's announced that it was giving away children's books instead of toys with its Happy Meals.

The fast-food giant plans to distribute nine million books over four weeks, making it by far the biggest children's book distributor in the UK for that period. As a comparison, children's book sales for the whole of the UK usually average only 6.4 million in four weeks.

The books are from War Horse author Michael Morpurgo's Mudpuddle Farm series. "It is so important to get children into books and to ingrain a love of literature. If that starts in a McDonald's, that's fine by me," Morpurgo said.

Britain's National Literacy Trust is supportive, given that its research suggests that one in three children in the UK doesn't own a book.

That's four million children with empty bookshelves. Astounding. Meanwhile, McDonald's says four out of five British families come through its doors (or drive-throughs).

On the other side of the debate - predictably - are campaigners for children's nutrition. Charlie Powell of the Children's Food Campaign said it was an inappropriate marketing strategy during a childhood obesity epidemic.

"The idea appears to be designed to make fast food more attractive to children, which is not the direction we should be going in. You have to question whether it is McDonald's role in society to improve childhood literacy."

Unfortunately for the children's nutrition lobby, the media furore they have fuelled by their opposition to the scheme will have undermined their point - by alerting the wider public to the campaign, and thus driving more Happy Meal munchers through the golden arches.

Powell has called it a cynical marketing ploy. He's dead right, of course. McDonald's might trumpet about its "corporate social responsibility" but that's really about putting the brand in a better light to make us feel more comfortable about filling up our kids with burgers and chips and fizzy drinks (and, yes, perhaps the odd bag of fruit).

Yes, it's a shame that Britain's kids might be getting that tiny bit fatter, on average, in exchange for getting that tiny bit more literate. But sometimes, in this imperfect society, maybe it's okay to compromise on one battleground to gain some traction on another. Why not channel the chain's pester power for good instead of evil? For better or worse, McDonald's can reach some children that libraries and conventional booksellers can't.
And better a book than a piece of plastic that the kids have usually discarded by the time they've come down from their sugar highs.

McDonald's New Zealand doesn't plan to distribute the Morpurgo books, but spokesman Simon Kenny says its New Zealand outlets gave away books with Happy Meals over a couple of months in late 2010, and will consider doing it again. The books were a "Watch Me Grow" series that showed children how various animals grew from babies to adults.
Perhaps next time they should give away Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to show what can happen to greedy little children...

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