You know… a while back, I watched a documentary on obesity – titled Killer at Large – that showed a brief highlight of one parent’s quest to change how companies market their products to children. It was brief snippet of two women bickering a bit about how “this marketing means I have to have a fight with my children about why they can’t have the happy meal” and the other woman said something to the effect of “well, then that’s what you have to do.”

Let me backtrack.

Bowing to pressure from health advocates and parents, McDonald’s is putting the Happy Meal on a diet.

The company announced Tuesday that it would more than halve the amount of French fries and add fruit to its popular children’s meal in an effort to reduce the overall calorie count by 20 percent.

But McDonald’s appeasement only went so far. A toy will still come with each Happy Meal despite criticism that the trinkets, often with tie-ins to movies like “Toy Story,” foster a powerful connection between children and the often calorie-laden meals.

While Happy Meals account for less than 10 percent of all McDonald’s sales, the signature box and its contents — first introduced in 1979 — have become a favorite target in recent years. Lawmakers and consumers have rallied around breaking that childhood link between toys and fast food, with the efforts increasing as Michelle Obama and national public health officials point to the estimated 17 percent rate of obesity among the nation’s youths.

San Francisco, for example, has banned the inclusion of toys in children’s meals unless certain nutritional requirements are met. A New York City councilman is proposing a similar law. [source]

I suppose this move is meant to give kids – like mine – a bargaining chip when it comes time to beg Mommy for a happy meal… especially if I were to retort “It’s not healthy!” “But Mooooooooooommom, it has apples!”

The other day, my daughter asked me why I give her apples all the time, and I told her “because they make you big and strong!” This answer was apparently sufficient, because she promptly flexed her little toddler arm and asked me to touch her muscle.

What I didn’t expect, however, was for her to run up to my desk, tap me and ask me for a “danimino,” whatever that is, telling me that it would make her grow up healthy and strong. It was at this point where I understood what the mom in the conversation I mentioned above was referring to: marketing that intends to undermine my parenting, so that they can sell a profit.

Considering what I blog about each day – awareness, personal responsibility, conscious consumerism – I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that, because of what I know, I’m conflicted here.

In response to my daughter talking to me about whatever a “danimino” is, I told her “No, baby, you know what makes you big and strong? Those fruits and vegetables in the fridge – you know, the tomatoes, avocados, broccoli, apples, oranges – those make you grow!” And, much like an after-school special commercial, she replied “Yeah, Mom! I like vegetables!” while giving me a high-five.

Ahhh, they’re so awesome when they’re four years old.

Now, while it was easy to manage the situation that one time, I wonder what our relationship would be like if I had to duke it out with her every single day over something she saw in a commercial. What will it be like years down the road? “No, eating happy meals won’t make you float into outer space.” and “No, trix aren’t for kids.” will surely turn into “GET THE HELL OUT OF MY ROOM AND STOP ASKING ME FOR LUCKY CHARMS AT FIVE IN THE MORNING LIKE YOU HAVE A JOB TO GO TO!” before too long.

Not seriously, of course… but seriously.

I’m also aware of the fact that everything you teach your child is in competition with everything every other parent has taught every other child that comes in contact with my daughter. What I teach my child is in direct competition with everything she sees in the world and, like any other issue in regards to parenting, I just have to hope that she trusts my message more. But will she? If I tell her that we don’t drink soft drinks in the house because it’s unhealthy, how can I compete with the vending machine next to the nurse’s office in her school? So if a parent thinks that “twinkies are okay in moderation,” how do I, as a parent, compete with a philosophy that presents immediate gratification? How many times can “that’s not true, listen to me instead” work on an adolescent/teenager before it turns into an all-out war?

What I’m leading up to… is the concept of limiting marketing to children. The idea that there should be some kind of limitation on how companies market to children is peculiar to me. What makes us think that a company, with billions on the line, wouldn’t find new ways to target our children? “Oh, we can’t market on TV in commercials anymore? Who’s the newest little teen sensation? Call up their agent and see if we can get them to drink/eat our product in their next video. What are the kids doing now? Chuck. E. Cheese? Go get our posters up on the walls there. Go find a school that needs revenue and ask them to put our flyers up in their hallways.”

You can only limit a company so much before they can sue for infringing on their first amendment rights. We can only chase them into behaving properly for so long. I mean, kudos to McDonalds for offering healthier options for children – particularly because, in some areas, McDonalds might be all they have – but they’re a company with profits to make… and they’re always going to be expected to do what’s best for them. In the end, this still places the onus onto the parents to wade through the marketing to handle their children.

How does this tie into Mickey D’s? Their press release included the following: “In 2012, McDonald’s will also raise nutrition awareness among children and parents through national marketing initiatives. The company will promote nutrition and/or active lifestyle messages in 100 percent of its national kids’ communications, including merchandising, advertising, digital and the Happy Meal packaging.” This is their prime opportunity to educate you – and your child – on how to eat… coincidentally before the FDA can agree that it’s time to start regulating them. They have to make this venture profitable somehow, and if it means painting “healthy eating” as “a McDonalds specialty,” then so be it.

In the end, I have very little hope for any sensible restraints ever being placed on marketing… so I’ll continue to champion the cause for avocadoes, tomatoes and broccoli for the little one until she gets old enough to get a job and buy her own crap food with her own money. Maybe, by then, my own little marketing ploy of “it’s better for you” will have sunk in.