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, 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:








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.]


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?


We don't call that a straw-man argument anymore. It's "straw-person" argument.


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.


That is awesome. also it is going to be very hard with the upcoming Spiderman toys.
click upcoming toys

They are all Spiderman toys, just some are pink while others are normal red/blue for Spiderman


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.


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!

Cash Whisperer Kendall Peterson

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.


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.


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.

Dave Hansen-Lange

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.


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.


Congratulations on finishing Antonia's college application! You guys will definitely get into Harvard now!


As a former McDonald's employee (from the 90's), we were instructed to ask with out reference to sex, but I had several customers say "whatever is for boys/girls." The customers were usually upset that I had asked them like that, so I changed it to please the customers. Now as a parent, I have no problem asking for a My Little Pony toy for my boys if that is what they want, and there is no way I will be offended if they call it a "girl toy."

As long as they allow parents to choose what they want, there is no real harm.


Suing McDonald's over something as trivial as this is an abuse of the legal system. Human Rights Commission? Seriously? While defending such actions may be job security for corporate attorneys like me, they create a drag on the economy, hurt shareholders, clog the courts, and ultimately help no one but the exceedingly thin-skinned and the lawyers who represent them.


I'm going to go out on a limb that if your child is troubled by being given a toy they find disparaging to their identity, they may have bigger problems, including narcissism.

The suggestion that McDonald's is unwilling to accommodate a girl's request for a boy's toy is contradicted by McDonald's employees asking which is preferred.

Is it at all possible that the person who put the girl's toy in the Happy Meal, after the girl had requested a boy toy might have no more malice than the person who forgets to put the straw in the bag, or fails to remember a request for extra ketchup?


It's actually sad that so much time and effort went into this.

A human right's complaint? Really?

There is so much wrong with the world, and she had to choose this? Such a waste of time.

And to try and eke out some "economics data" to try and make it seem "legit" is pretty laughable.


I'd think from an efficiency/economics standpoint, the simplest thing for McDonald's employees is to ask "What toy do you want?" If that satisfies the customers, then hooray, and no hurt feelings is a side benefit. If the orderer is worried that they might hear a gender-loaded question, they can put the toy request in with the order, and skip the process.

Pushing a campaign for no hurt feelings on a website based on economics seems to be going the reverse direction.

Disclaimer: My kids don't want Happy Meals, when there's an ad with toys they like, I buy them on ebay.


Now that I saw the Slate article, with the description of employee stonewalling and lying about toy availability, I've got to apply Hanlon's law here. That just sounds like lousy customer service, not a campaign of discrimination.


I am glad you created something to sue for. What a useless existence and waste of resources.


This is stupid, and that's all the commentary it deserves.