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McDonald's Latest Attempt To Make Happy Meals Seem Healthy Has Backfired

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In the latest blow to the McDonald's franchise's continued attempts to brand itself as a "healthy" fast-food chain, it is taking its fitness trackers out of its Happy Meals after reports surfaced of customers experiencing skin irritation upon wearing the device. To lift the stigma of the Happy Meal being unhealthy, McDonald's replaced the traditional figurine, book and plush toy one would typically find inside the child-focused meal with a fitness tracker in the United States and Canada for a limited period of time.

However, in exchange for their physical fitness, the fitness trackers — which come in six colors, count steps and blink according to how quickly or slowly the person wearing the device is moving — have accidentally wound up putting the users' well-being at risk.

"We have taken this swift and voluntary step after receiving limited reports of potential skin irritations that may be associated from wearing the band," a McDonald's representative said in a statement. "Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our customers and we are fully investigating this issue."

This is the latest setback to befall McDonald's staple menu item. Long used by critics as evidence of a plot by McDonald's to make fattening meals more appealing to children in particular, thus playing a role in increasing childhood obesity rates, the modern Happy Meal is completely unrecognizable when compared with the old Happy Meal from the '90s. Compared with the hamburger, fries, soda and obligatory toy that the meal had back then, Happy Meals nowadays have new additions such as milk and apples.

Interestingly enough, even this transition hasn't been smooth-sailing.

For example, when apples were first introduced to the Happy Meal in 2004, it was offered as an alternative to French fries and not as a mainstay in the meal. McDonald's was forced to change this in 2011, when the chain realized that the ability to choose between fries and apples often led to disagreements between parents and their children, whose idea of a Happy Meal didn't include apples. The result? Apples became a mainstay, and the meals had fewer fries.

As for the fitness trackers, while the intent was obvious for analysts, they argued that intention would be lost on children, who would probably view the device as just another toy instead of a serious message about exercise.

"Because it's such a temporal promotional toy, it feels a little less of a serious commitment," said Nicole Ferry, a partner and executive director of strategy for branding firm Sullivan, who went on to describe the promotion as a "misplaced brand message."

Unfortunately, while analysts understand McDonald's intentions, for customers, these efforts may have come too late. In a report last year, Goldman Sachs' analysts wrote that parents are steering clear of the burger chain, opting to go to places like Starbucks.

"Starbucks is virtually the only large incumbent that can offer millennial parents the convenience of a (fast food chain) and food they would not feel guilty/embarrassed to feed to their kids," they wrote last year.

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