The Happy Meal Bait And Switch

February 13th, 2012 | Categories: Age, Class, Role

Saturday I took my children to McDonald’s. It was no different than my other experiences at McDonald’s in the last few years. I purchase the happy meal. My kids wait eagerly, excited to get their toy having seen it imprisoned in a display box visible squarely at their height. They quickly open the box. Grab for the toy. And just as quickly complain “that’s not the toy I wanted.”

McDonald’s usually has several varieties of the current toy that comes free with each Happy Meal. But that’s not why my children are disappointed. They realize there is more than one option and they know they don’t get to choose which one.

My children are disappointed because the options they were shown were not any of the ones they received. When I inquire of the McDonald’s staff, as I always do, I am told that the other toys have run out. This Saturday it was the popular Barbie toy that was no longer available. Instead, my children receive their sixth and seventh toys from the Strawberry Shortcake series.

Now don’t get me wrong. Anyone who knows my blog can guess that I am not a fan of Barbie but I can understand their disappointment. Barbie is comparatively more rare for our household and the Barbie has real hair whereas the other toy does not. Granted the other toy is scented, but you can’t tell that from the bag and after having so many of these my kids are no longer impressed with the scents anyway. They were advertised Barbie and they wanted Barbie. Yet again, my children were left disappointed by the Happy Meal Bait and Switch.

I empathize. As a consumer, if I were to return home from a store, open my bag to enjoy my purchase, and find I had been given a substitute (of lesser value) for the specific free product advertised through a prominently displayed case I would be rather upset. It is likely, that I would return the purchase entirely and perhaps no longer shop at the store unless I was offered some suitable explanation.

The thing is, I would be. I would be offered an explanation. I would be offered an apology. I may even be offered some compensation for my time and inconvenience. So, I wondered, why were my kids and I- equally consumers in this situation- not receiving this treatment?

Then it occurred to me. Stereotypes! Three stereotypes in particular explain why McDonald’s pawns substitute toys without concern about retaliation from customers.

1) “They’re only kids.” Kids are, according to stereotypes, not to be taken seriously and are often viewed as unimportant in decision making until they grow up. Teenagers and even college students can find that their input is dismissed in conversations and that their preferences may not be taken seriously by those older than them.

2) “Mothers are always busy and flustered.” The stereotype of mothers is that they are harried and have no time to care too much about small inconveniences like complaining about a Happy Meal toy. Mothers are supposedly so frazzled taking care of unruly children that they can’t be bothered to hassle with complaining about something that to us, though not to our children, is ultimately so unimportant.

3) “Poor people should be grateful for whatever they get.” Because McDonald’s food is so cheap, customers should be happy that they get what they get for such a cheap price and shouldn’t be upset. The stereotype, then, is that poor people should be happy with the handouts they get. For the price, McDonald’s typically offers a great financial deal. So, who is going to complain about getting the wrong toy especially when it’s a free product in one of the cheapest items on the menu? The stereotype would lead one to think that poor people should be satisfied with the “handout’ and not complain. Think of it as a McDonald’s welfare program.

Despite these stereotypes, Saturday I complained. I complained for the first time despite the many times this has happened.

I was told apologetically that the toy had run out and that we could exchange my child’s toy at any other McDonald’s. I commented that I understand that they may run out but I don’t understand why they wouldn’t place a sign on the display case that indicates this. This way children wouldn’t have to be disappointed unnecessarily and parents wouldn’t have to deal with unnecessarily disappointed children. The manager said she would speak to her manager about posting a sign. After forty more minutes, there was never a sign placed. Actually, despite having experienced this Happy Meal Bait and Switch at several McDonald’s repeatedly, I have never seen a sign of this kind at any McDonald’s display case.

In my cumulative frustration I decided I only had one recourse left. I asked the manager to be the one to notify my children that they were not getting their desired toy. She was understandably and visibly surprised ad unhappy with my request. Yet, to her credit, she told them. She stared at my two year old and four year old and told them the same thing she told me. The toy had run out and that we could exchange the toy at any other McDonald’s.

I wish I had a picture of my daughter’s deeply disappointed sigh (coupled with appropriate and exaggerated body movements) and my son’s deer-in-headlights shocked and disappointed look.

I didn’t bother to return the toys to another store. Who has the time for that? There’s a reason we were having fast food! Instead, with the permission of my children, I returned the two toys to the cashier without saying a word. They had never wanted those toys anyway.

As consumers, regardless of their being kids, my children have a keen understanding of what they want and what they’ve earned. They had a right to be disappointed.

Regardless of whether I am a mom and despite being in a rush, I made my complaint because I wasn’t given what I was advertised.

I spoke up because if I am mistreated I should stand up for my rights regardless of my financial status.

Of course, McDonald’s can make this easier on everyone who faces this situation if they would just post signs when the current toy promotion has run out. That is standard business practice for any company. Despite their stereotypes of their Happy Meal customers, McDonald’s should be no different.

Until McDonald’s does that, I encourage all those who have experienced the Happy Meal Bait and Switch at McDonald’s to speak up too, demand an apology be made to your children, and give back the unwanted toys.

Regardless of whether you are or aren’t a kid, a mom, or poor, don’t let McDonald’s continue to use their stereotypes against you.

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  1. Alli
    February 23rd, 2012 at 23:49

    I couldn’t agree more that kids’ and young adult’s opinions are often disregarded simply because they are young. As a college student I have witnessed and experienced many examples of condescending remarks to young people. In my personal experience I have noticed that my opinion is regarded as much less worthy than my aunts in the eyes of my grand parents. I think it is important to mention that although my aunt is 54 years old, she has not grown up. She is not responsible with her children, leaving them alone many night and not telling them when or if she is coming home. She goes out and drinks, hangs out with her friends, or visits her boyfriend. Granted that her children are young adults themselves, but I think it is disrespectful and immature of her not to tell her family of her whereabouts. They obviously worry about her, and have demonstrated their grief. The family is not based on good communication and the mother does nothing to improve the matter. They do not talk things out and if they express how they are feeling it is always being yelled. However, my aunt is still respected among my grandparents. Whenever, she does something wrong and immature they ignore it. In their eyes she will always be respectable and good. Moreover, my grandparents often act condescending towards me because in their eyes I am naive and just a sprout. I think that this may be because they were raised on the idea that your elders are always right and you must be respectful of them. I believe in respecting your elders but I think its very silly to act blindly.

  2. Andrea
    February 24th, 2012 at 00:32

    I agree with this argument that McDonalds does stereotype its customers, and does not take their satisfaction seriously. This example of stereotyping is a little silly in my opinion because it is just about a toy. However, in larger perspective, it really does show that they believe their customers are too much in a rush to complain, too poor to complain, and too young to even know how to complain. This also makes me wonder where else in my life I have been stereotyped. I am a female college student and I have seen that my voice and my opinion do not really matter and are not really heard in serious matters. People usually do not even care to hear my “naiive” opinio. I recognize that many people openly make remarks like “I’ll tell you when you are older” and many others. What makes people think that my gender or age has anything to do with my intelligence. This example of the toy replacement at McDonald’s is a great example of a small scale stereotype. I wonder how many times a day and in how many places around the world McDonald’s does this to its customers.

  3. Kailyn
    February 24th, 2012 at 11:59

    I have had similar experiences with McDonald’s happy meal toys when I have taken my nieces and nephews through their drive thru, and have asked to get a different toy because my niece ended up with 5 multiples of the same exact toy. I think that not only kids but teenagers and college students are highly stereotyped against by most adults. They tend to assume that children do not know what they are talking about because they have no experience which is not very fair. Every one experiences things differently in their lives and just because someone is not as old does not mean they cannot share their opinions on the matter. I often find that this applies to my parents especially my father. I try to communicate to him about serious matters such as economic issues and current news and listen to what he has to say about the subject, but rarely gives me a chance to speak my mind. I understand that he is much older than me, and I can learn from hearing of his experiences but who is to say that he cannot learn from some of mine. Anyway, in this case it seems like they do not give children a fair choice of product just because they are kids and “don’t know any better.”

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