Under the Golden Arches, Soda Sales to Kids Fall Flat

McDonald’s decision to not advertise the sugary carbonated drinks on Happy Meal menus has resulted in decreased demand.

(Photo: Rosie Tulips/Flickr)

Jun 26, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

When it comes to soda, the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” is proving to be true. On Thursday, McDonald’s announced that its decision to stop promoting carbonated beverages as a Happy Meal drink option has resulted in a sharp decrease in orders.

According to a report issued by the fast-food giant, between July 2014 and May 2015 only 48 percent of customers purchased a fizzy drink with a Happy Meal, down from 56 percent during the same time period the previous year. Before the menu shift, 37 percent of customers opted for milk or juice, but after soda stopped being advertised, 46 percent of people began choosing those beverages.

The decision to strip sodas from menu boards and marketing material for the kid-friendly meals is part of a pledge McDonald’s made at the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative. The company agreed to team up with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a nonprofit started by the Clinton Foundation, and the American Heart Association to combat childhood obesity.

However, that same year the Golden Arches came under fire from the Center for Science in the Public Interest for merely stripping pictures of soda from Happy Meal ads and in-store signage while still keeping the drinks on the Happy Meal menu. After the backlash, McDonald’s agreed to phase soda out of kids’ meals entirely. This year, the two other big burger chains, Wendy’s and Burger King, followed suit.

“In less than a year period, to see a shift away from soda is encouraging,” Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told The Wall Street Journal. “Given that for decades restaurants have been promoting soda on kids’ menus, it’s going to take time to get into a new mind-set. Taking soda off the menu is a really important step.”

So, Why Should You Care? According to a report issued in 2014 from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 20 percent of children ages five to 17 who live in one of the 34 OECD nations are overweight or obese. A full 25 percent of children also dont drink water at all on a daily basis. Meanwhile, sipping sugary drinks such as soda has long been connected to higher obesity rates. In one study published in 2013 in the journal Pediatrics, five-year-olds who consumed just one sugar-sweetened beverage every day were 43 percent more likely to be obese than their peers who did not.

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The shift away from soda as a Happy Meal drink comes at a time when McDonald’s sales are slumping and kids as a whole aren’t as into Happy Meals as they used to be. Last year, a report from restaurant research firm Sandelman & Associates found that kids no longer see the retailer as a place to eat real food—that status is now reserved for fast-casual spots such as Chipotle and Chik-Fil-A.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s seems to hope it can lure back kids—and their parents—with an expanded menu of healthy options. Side salads and veggies are set to be offered as an alternative to the ubiquitous golden fries by 2020.