A consumer protection group filed a class-action suit against McDonald's Wednesday morning, claiming the toys included in Happy Meals bait and induce children to develop a preference for nutritionally poor foods.
The suit was filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest on behalf of Monet Parham of Sacramento, Calif., and her six-year-old daughter Maya.
"McDonald's exploits very young California children and harms their health by advertising unhealthy Happy Meals with toys directly to them," the suit states.
"Children eight-years-old and younger do not have the cognitive skills and the developmental maturity to understand the persuasive intent of marketing and advertising," the suit continues. "Thus, McDonald's advertising featuring toys to bait children violates California law because it is inherently deceptive and unfair."
The lawsuit contains allegations not proven in court.
In a written statement to CBC News, McDonald's spokeswoman Bridget Coffing stated: "We are proud of our Happy Meals and intend to vigorously defend our brand, our reputation and our food."
"We stand by our 30-year track record of providing a fun experience for kids and families at McDonald's."
The case will be heard in San Francisco, which recently passed a local ordinance setting nutritional standards for children's meals sold with toys.
"I am very concerned about the health of my children and feel that McDonald's should be a very limited part of their diet and their childhood experience," explained Parham.
She said she's bringing the suit because her daughter insists on going to McDonald's to get toys based on Barbie, I-Carly, Shrek or Strawberry Shortcake.
"As other busy, working moms and dads know, we have to say 'no' to our young children so many times, and McDonald's makes it so much harder to do."
McDonald's intent is to 'subvert parental authority'
The suit states that: "Internal McDonald's documents prove its intent to subvert parental authority."
One such document quotes Martin Lindstrom — who advises McDonald's on branding and marketing — stating in a presentation that McDonald's "gets into the parents' wallets via the kids' minds."
According to another document, former McDonald's CEO Roy Bergold described the restaurant's strategy in a magazine article as "go after the kids."
"Ray Kroc [McDonald's founder] said that if you had $1 to spend on marketing, spend it on kids. Why? Because they can't get to the restaurant by themselves and they eat a lot."
Bergold also told the magazine that children are tempted more by the toys than the food.
"What kids see as a fun toy, I now realize is a sophisticated, high-tech marketing scheme that's designed to put McDonald's between me and my daughters," Parham said. "I want McDonald's to stop interfering with my family."
The Center for Science in the Public Interest says most McDonald's Happy Meals contain more calories and sodium than is healthy for a child.
"McDonald's offerings consist mostly of fatty meat, fatty cheese, french fries, white flour and sugar — a narrow combination of foods that promotes weight gain, obesity, diabetes and heart disease — and may lead to a lifetime of poor diets."