An Unexpected Value Coming From the Happy Meal

Gregory Ferenstein in Pacific Standard: “Improbable as it sounds, McDonald’s may hold the key to getting America’s youth to eat healthier.

A team of medical researchers led by Dr. Robert Siegel took a strategy from the Happy Meal playbook, pairing healthy lunch options at public schools with smiley faces and a toy. The result were extraordinary: voluntary healthy meal purchases quadrupled.

“A two-tiered approach of Emoticons followed by small prizes as an incentive for healthful food selections is very effective in increasing plain white milk, fruit and vegetable selection,” the researchers write in a study presented this week at the annual Pediatric Academic Societies meeting, in San Diego.

Indeed, the popularization of emoticons has been co-opted by researchers lately to see if the colorful balls of happiness can be utilized for socially beneficial ends. One 2014 study found that “emolabeling” could be a major factor in health choice selection by both pre-literate and young children….

This latest research delves further into the power of emoticons in two significant ways. First, the study was tested in some of the most troubled school neighborhoods. (Siegel estimates that a significant portion of the families were either poor or homeless.) Second, knowing that smiling faces alone may not be enough to change behavior, after three months of using emoticons, the team added in a toy to further entice healthy meals.

With emoticons alone, the team found that chocolate milk sales at the school took a noticeable dip, from 87 percent of total milk sales to 78 percent. Later, entire meals known as “Power Plates” were added and paired with a toy. These healthy lunches (with whole grains and vegetables) spiked from less than 10 percent to 42 percent with the introduction of emoticons and a toy.

Interestingly enough, after the toys were taken away, the children continued to select healthy meals. That’s because external rewards can have odd effects on behavior….(More)