Print, Persuade and Post

(Photo: Chelsea Gomez)

(Photo: Chelsea Gomez)

My coauthor (and 16-year-old daughter) Antonia Ayres-Brown just published a piece in Slate about a project that started 5 years ago when we bleg’d Freakonomics readers to tell us about how McDonald’s refers to Happy Meal toys. Antonia was disturbed by the kinds of questions we encountered when we ordered Happy Meals at the drive-thru. We’d be asked things like “Is it for a boy or girl?” or “Do you want a girl’s toy or a boy’s toy?”

asked readers whether they encountered similar questions.  According to seventy nine reader responses, approximately one-fifth of the time McDonald’s employees did not ask a toy-related question.  But when employees did ask a toy-related question:

47.7%                    Asked “Is It for a Boy or Girl?”

31.8%                    Asked “Do You Want A Boy’s Toy or a Girl’s Toy?”

15.9%                    Described the toys in non-gender terms.

I’ve waited this long to report the results because Antonia have I have been engaged in a long-term project to encourage McDonald’s to describe the toys without reference to children’s gender.  [You can read about our efforts – including our unsuccessful suit against McDonald’s before the Connecticut Human Rights Commission in this law review draft.]

And I’m happy to report that we’ve made progress.  As Antonia wrote in her Slate piece:

On December 17, 2013, I received an amazing letter back from McDonald’s Chief Diversity Officer, Patricia Harris, saying, “It is McDonald’s intention and goal that each customer who desires a Happy Meal toy be provided the toy of his or her choice, without any classification of the toy as a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ toy and without any reference to the customer’s gender. We have recently reexamined our internal guidelines, communications and practices and are making improvements to better ensure that our toys are distributed consistent with our policy.”

Even more heartening, DoSomething.org just posted a photo of a manager’s notice on the wall of an actual McDonald’s store instructing employees: “When a customer orders a happy meal you must ask ‘will that be a My Little Pony toy? Or a Skylanders toy?’. We will no longer refer to them as ‘boy or girl toys.’”

Rap Genius has posted an exegesis of the McDonald’s letter and here’s a photo of the manager’s notice:

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To my mind, this is evidence that McDonald’s is really trying.

But it’s difficult to achieve full compliance across their massive franchise network of thousands of restaurants.  As the Diversity Officer explained:

I hope you can appreciate even with additional communication and training and improvements to our processes, it may take some time to fully see the results of our efforts in more than 14,000 restaurants in the U.S.  It is our intention to continue to monitor to ensure that our policy is being implemented and followed throughout our system.

As we move forward, crowd-sourcing may be the easiest way to assess whether the franchisor’s best intentions are being put into franchisee practice.  Any reader can simply order a Happy Meal to find out.

Here’s a link to an online survey where you can report what happened after you placed your order.

Crowd-Sourcing Compliance

This past weekend, Antonia went to a local McDonald’s and upon ordering a Happy Meal at the drive-thru was asked, “Is it for a boy or girl?”.  She then went inside the store and asked to speak with the manager.  She gave him a copy of the Diversity Officer’s letter and he readily agreed to look into making the change.

Freakonomics nation, if you’d like to help us crowd-source compliance, you can follow Antonia’s lead.  Just follow the three P’s: print, persuade, and post. Simply print a copy of McDonald’s new Happy Meal policy and take it with you next time you visit McDonald’s. If your local store is still asking gendered Happy Meal questions, ask to speak with the manager, give her or him a copy of the letter, and respectfully try to persuade the manager to follow McDonald’s stated policy.  And finally, post what happens – both as a comment here and by filling out this survey.  Antonia’s Slate article has struck a nerve with more than 10k Facebook shares.  A few hundred people following up by visiting a local McDonald’s with a copy of her letter might have a big impact.

I want to praise McDonald’s for its commitment to change, and interested consumers can now help the Chief Diversity Officer assure compliance.

[By the way, Antonia is the same daughter about whom I wrote concerning the “dad or daughter” songwriting contest.  You can hear me (lamely) play a guitar riff at the bridge of Friendzone.]

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  1. Tarrou says:

    Is this serious? Not satire or anything? You’re seriously asking your readership to help you get minimum-wage workers fired so that children won’t be “damaged” by hearing toys referred to by gendered terms? I wouldn’t have attributed this position to my staunchest ideological adversary. What’s the term for something that should be a straw-man argument, but isn’t?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 122 Thumb down 16
    • Hugo says:

      We don’t call that a straw-man argument anymore. It’s “straw-person” argument.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 82 Thumb down 2
      • Isabel says:

        “Ought to be a straw-man but isn’t” perfectly sums up Tarryu’s argument. Managers should not be able or willing to sack people after one verbal slip but perhaps in the US they can and are.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1
      • Ivy says:

        no. no one is asking that.

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
    • Enter your name... says:

      Why do you think that the workers are going to get fired? I think they’ll just start following the directions they’re given, exactly like they already follow hundreds of other procedures.

      Thumb up 9 Thumb down 10
      • Larry Siegel says:

        A lot of minimum-wage workers are pretty marginal and are (rightly or wrongly, I’d argue rightly) easy to replace. So they’re one “mistake” away from getting fired.

        (They should ask boys wanting a My Little Pony toy, “Are you a brony?” Kidding.)

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    • Enter your name... says:

      It’s not about children being “damaged by hearing gendered terms”. It’s about boys hearing that they’re not “supposed to” want horses and about telling girls that they’re not “supposed to” want monsters—and in an unfortunate number of cases, even when they get the courage up to ask for the “wrong” toy, it’s about the store refusing to give them the toys that they asked for. Why shouldn’t the store give them whatever they ask for? Why should the store be telling them that horses are only for girls, and that purple dragons are only for boys?

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 17 Thumb down 20
      • CombatMissionary says:

        Have you ever had a McDonald’s employee refuse to give you the toy your kid wants in a Happy Meal?

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1
      • Joshua Taj Bozeman says:

        I dunno…maybe because BOYS AND GIRLS ARE DIFFERENT! And this lunatic insistence that they are the same is, in fact, what’s dangerous to them?

        This guy is a fool and he’s doing his best to turn his daughter into a fool. He is actively damaging her by ensuring that only a small minority of her peers will ever be able to stand being around her for more than five minutes. Thankfully, we still live in a world where people like this aren’t tolerated very well. For good reason.

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  2. Benjamin says:

    As someone who worked at a McDonalds in my teenage years, I can say that in our stores we tried to communicate the different toys, but with the hurried nature of the fast food transaction, many customers would just give you a blank stare when you named them. Sure when it’s Barbie Vs. HotWheels it’s easy to distinguish, but when it’s something they haven’t heard of and they have a toddler pulling on their leg crying because their chicken nuggets are taking 15 seconds too long, they default to “boy” or “girl.”

    I agree with the objective of gender neutral labeling, but my point is just that the difficulty in implementing is as much a problem with McDonalds as it is with the customers.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 67 Thumb down 5
    • ERLW says:

      This. A thousand times.

      I spent 5 years working at McDonalds in the UK while I was in College and University. Looking back, I think I said “do you want the boy toy or the girl toy?”, but only because the alternative would have been this discussion:

      “do you want obscure random franchise 1 or 2″
      “what’s obscure random franchise 1?”
      “something about cowboys I think? One of them has a hat… I think 2 is something off of Nickelodeon, but I’ve never seen it”
      “Can I see one of each?”

      Meanwhile all the other customers will be saying “I thought this was suppose to be fast food”. I don’t want to offend anyone, but in that industry (now as a customer) I would rather my server was efficient rather than pleasant.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 34 Thumb down 0
  3. mike says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 13
    • ERLW says:

      In my experience the boy/girl issue tends to be when there are two “brands” (My little pony and hot wheels, to steal an example above). With the overarching brands (“Spiderman”) they just rotate the general toy and you get what you get (with the opportunity to negotiate should any of last week’s toy remain). It’s been 10 years since I worked at McD’s so this may have changed, but I think it’s a non-issue for Spiderman.

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  4. Reid says:

    Am I seeing correctly that you actually sued McDonald’s for asking if the customer wanted a boy toy or girl toy?

    Where is the unlike button when you need it.

    My kids just look at the toys in the display and pick the kind they want, I think a lawsuit is serious overkill.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 94 Thumb down 6
    • Tarrou says:

      And now he wants his readers to be some sort of gender-noun policing Stasi, informing on breaches of SWPL dogma to the corporate heads.

      I do apologize, I don’t want to exceed myself here, but if you are the sort of person who walks into a McDonalds looking to get a poor person fired for offending your exquisitely delicate sex-related language fetish, you are not a nice, polite or decent member of society. How utterly vile. This is like listening to a Rush Limbaugh version of what “nanny-state liberals” are supposedly like, only he is apparently in earnest!

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 73 Thumb down 11
      • Marian Kechlibar says:

        Stasi is precisely what he wants, the only difference is in the book that they are to enforce.

        It is precious that the same people usually disparage the Saudi Arabian religious police.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 3
    • jon says:

      This really does seem like satire. Especially the part about actually filing a lawsuit.

      Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
    • Ivy says:

      no, you’re not.

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  5. SO, what you are saying is that there are no differences between the sexes. Interesting position. (Oh and no matter how common it is, that’s still the improper use of the word “gender”. Words have gender. People have sex.) But I enjoyed reading about your quest.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 8
    • James says:

      Unfortunately, your idea of proper usage seems bound to create a certain degree of linguistic confusion. Just contemplate the question of whether (Catholic) priests and nuns have sex.

      Thumb up 8 Thumb down 11
      • Enter your name... says:

        Chaste unmarried people, as well as small children, do have a (biological) sex. Kendall’s just using a dictionary that’s about half a century out of date, so it doesn’t include definitions like “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex ” (from Merriam–Webster). “Gender” has been expanded to include non-biological sex, and sex has been restricted to biological. That’s why you can have a transgendered person who is not transsexual (a person whose social gender has changed, but whose biology is fully the original sex), and it’s why intersex people (biologically has at least some aspects of both sexes) are not the same as intergender people (genderqueers, including people who identify as neither male nor female, or as both).

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  6. Anony says:

    As someone that works internally with McDonalds in the Happy Meal business, I believe this change to gender-neutral customer prompting at the point of sale is being rolled out nationally in the coming months. Some markets are currently employing this policy, while others will be starting by July at the latest.

    The upcoming Happy Meal promotion has both “boy” and “girl” themed toys, but they are all based on the new Spider-Man 2 movie. I don’t have any idea how McDonalds is going to be able to prompt the customers gender-neutrally when both the “boy” and “girl” toys are based on the same property, since they can’t fall back on referring to them as “My Little Pony” or “Skylander.”

    I would caution Freakonomics readers to be patient with compliance on this change, at least until July.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 9 Thumb down 12
    • Enter your name... says:

      They can ask about color: “Red or pink?”

      Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
    • C. Lindsey says:

      Depressingly enough, the Spider-Man Happy Meals toys are as aggressively gendered as any other McDux offerings. One set is red, and highlights webslinging action. The other is pink, and includes purses, bracelets, and masks. So instead of “boy or girl?” the workers should be asking “active or passive”? Or “hero or damsel in distress?”

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
  7. Dave Hansen-Lange says:

    I’m guessing that at least part of the reason for their shift is that it’s effectively more advertising for their media partners. The fact that people will now be having conversations about “My Little Froggy” or “Cloud Sailor” as part of the ordering process is music to advertisers’ ears.

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  8. Kyrie says:

    If they only put one toy in a Happy Meal, then someone would whine about that. When my daughter was young, she preferred Hot Wheels in her Happy Meal. She had plenty of Barbies at home. Never considered suing because they asked boy or girl. Amazingly enough, she does not have gender confusion issues.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 42 Thumb down 1