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An Unexpected Value Coming From the Happy Meal

Doctors discover how to use McDonald's-style emoticon marketing to quadruple healthy food choices.
(Photo: R. Patrick Shovlin/Flickr)

(Photo: R. Patrick Shovlin/Flickr)

Improbable as it sounds, McDonald's may hold the key to getting America's youth to eat healthier.

A team of medical researchers led by Dr. Robert Siegel took a strategy from the Happy Meal playbook, pairing healthy lunch options at public schools with smiley faces and a toy. The result were extraordinary: voluntary healthy meal purchases quadrupled.

“A two-tiered approach of Emoticons followed by small prizes as an incentive for healthful food selections is very effective in increasing plain white milk, fruit and vegetable selection,” the researchers write in a study presented this week at the annual Pediatric Academic Societies meeting, in San Diego.

Indeed, the popularization of emoticons has been co-opted by researchers lately to see if the colorful balls of happiness can be utilized for socially beneficial ends. One 2014 study found that "emolabeling" could be a major factor in health choice selection by both pre-literate and young children.

Healthy lunches (with whole grains and vegetables) spiked from less than 10 percent to 42 percent with the introduction of emoticons and a toy.

"Children can use emolabels to make healthy food choices even when other information about taste, social norms, and branding are present," the authors of the 2014 study conclude. "This study further shows that among children who used the emoticons, they largely used them to make healthy food choices."

This latest research delves further into the power of emoticons in two significant ways. First, the study was tested in some of the most troubled school neighborhoods. (Siegel estimates that a significant portion of the families were either poor or homeless.) Second, knowing that smiling faces alone may not be enough to change behavior, after three months of using emoticons, the team added in a toy to further entice healthy meals.

With emoticons alone, the team found that chocolate milk sales at the school took a noticeable dip, from 87 percent of total milk sales to 78 percent. Later, entire meals known as "Power Plates" were added and paired with a toy. These healthy lunches (with whole grains and vegetables) spiked from less than 10 percent to 42 percent with the introduction of emoticons and a toy.

Interestingly enough, after the toys were taken away, the children continued to select healthy meals. That's because external rewards can have odd effects on behavior. Sometimes, for example, giving a reward can have the opposite of the intended effect, and induce poor behavior. Researchers are therefore careful when adding prizes to influence behavior. They know there won't always be an external reward for healthy eating. At some point, children have to make healthy decisions on their own.

Fortunately, the children did. After prizes were removed, Power Plates purchases only dropped from 42 to 36 percent.

Siegel and his team suspect that prizes may be necessary to maintain high levels of healthy choices. But the sway of emoticons alone still says something powerful about information. "I think the kids connect emotionally to the message and on some level," the researchers write. Basically, children "want approval and want ... the right thing."

McDonald's might leave a positive lasting effect on the nation's health after all.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.