McDonald’s is making more moves to change its image with the inclusion of activity trackers in the fast food restaurant’s Happy Meals.

Fitness may not be the first thing that pops to mind when you think of McDonald’s, a fast food chain famous for its BigMac hamburgers. However the company is trying to promote a more health-conscious image by handing out activity trackers as toys with meals marketed to children, writes Mary Bowerman for USA Today.

McDonald's Step-It Activity
Image source: YouTube Video Screenshot

Happy Meals get a new healthy toy

The Happy Meals have included plastic toys, books or soft toys for years, depending on the promotion at the time. However McDonald’s is now handing out activity trackers with Happy Meals sold in the United States and Canada for a limited time only.

The so-called “step-it” trackers are one part of a campaign which is trying to get children out of the house. The fitness trackers come in six colors and are capable of counting steps and blinking in time with the speed of the wearer’s movement.

While the link between fast food and fitness may be tenuous at best, the move is part of a wider strategy at McDonald’s. The company has been criticized for marketing unhealthy food to children, and Michelle Greenwald, a professor at Columbia Business School, says that it is fighting back.

“They are doing something wholesome, and it gets you to maybe rethink and take another look because it’s surprising,” Greenwald said. “In marketing today you need to surprise people and jar them in order to reframe their thinking.”

McDonald’s offers calorie information with all meals

In 2011 McDonald’s made the momentous decision to offer fruit and Go-Gurt yogurt with Happy Meals, following years of pressure from food activists and consumer groups. The company had long been under pressure to include more fruits and vegetables on its menu.

McDonald’s also reduced the portion of french fries served with Happy Meals by over 50%. These days a hamburger Happy Meal with apples, juice and kids fries contains 460 calories, and a similar chicken nugget meal has 390 calories, according to data from McDonald’s.

“Physical activity is important to everyone of all ages. We very much support children’s well-being,” Michelle McIlmoyle, McDonald’s Canada senior marketing manager, in a statement. “Step-it is in line with McDonald’s general philosophy for Happy Meal toys, which is to make toys that encourage either physical or imagination-based play.”

Marketing unhealthy food to children also a concern

A TV and YouTube ad featuring the fitness trackers will be launched in the next few weeks in the United States and Canada, where every Happy Meal will come with a band in one of the six available colors. Previous efforts to overhaul the company image came in 2005, with TV ads that promoted exercise, and 2012, with a national schools tour aimed at “[teaching] kids about the benefits of healthy eating and exercise.”

While these efforts may be lauded in some quarters, they have been criticized in others. A 2004 study led by researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston revealed that youngsters who eat fast food on a regular basis are much more likely to gain weight than those that don’t.

Marketing is another issue that has become very sensitive. Researchers at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity carried out a year long analysis in 2010, discovering that advertising aimed at children had actually increased among the largest fast food chains in the United States.

The new campaign will invariably be criticized by certain people, but at least it seems that McDonald’s is making some effort to promote a healthy lifestyle.