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Fast-food toys becoming more educational

Sierra Brown

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

August 15, 2008


Isabella Manis, 5, smiles with glee as she fiddles with her new kids meal toy while lunching with her dad at a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Decatur. But the toy is no movie-inspired figurine or stuffed animal.

Instead, it’s a game based on the PBS kids show “Between the Lions.” Kids are encouraged to “make up a funny story” using three cards from a perforated sheet of simple words such as “pickle” and “girl.”

“They have great toys. The toys are really educational,” said Isabella’s father, Ricky Manis, 41.

Increasingly, fast-food chains such as Chick-fil-A are revamping their kids meal schedule with educationally themed toys. The toys — called “premiums” in industry jargon — aren’t just fun, but also aim to teach something.

“People are requesting kids premiums that are more socially responsible,” said Joe Tindall, chief executive and co-owner of Kid Stuff Marketing, a restaurant marketing company based in Kansas. “Parents want variety, healthy options and a fun toy to occupy kids’ time.”

Fast-food chains are trying to improve their image after years of criticism for contributing to the nation’s health problems and high obesity rate, Tindall said.

“Fast-food restaurants want to put on a ‘better face’ in the community,” said Tindall, who added that many chains are also requesting eco-friendly toys and packaging.

The restaurants have a strong incentive to keep customers happy — protecting the bottom line. The industry expects revenues of $156.8 billion this year, a 4.4 percent increase over 2007 sales, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2008 Restaurant Industry Forecast.

Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A has been marketing its educational toys since 1998. Unable to compete with giants Burger King and McDonald’s for first-tier movie tie-ins, the company decided to market educationally themed toys that incorporate the motto “growing kids inside and out.”

“We thought we could appeal to the moms,” said Steve Nedvidek, a Chick-fil-A marketing senior manager. Nedvidek is a freelance cartoonist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In one Chick-fil-A promotion, which the chain offers several times a year, instead of a toy kids get a miniature book, such as one of the children’s series Little Golden Books.

“When they do a book series, that’s my favorite,” said Alana Booker, a mom who frequents Chick-fil-A with her young children.

Fast-food giants also are part of the trend. Burger King features the Awesome Inch-A-Meter, a Crayola-themed toy that children can roll along a surface to measure lengths. Another example: Flash cards that help children solve math problems.

Wendy’s, the Ohio-based chain being purchased by Atlanta-based Triarc Cos., offers four audiobooks in collaboration with Random House’s popular Magic Tree House series.

The changes do not mean that the fast-food giants will abandon cross-promotional movie-themed premiums, which fetch millions in revenue, Angel Morales, managing director of kids marketing agency C3i, said in an e-mail. C3i is based in Overland Park, Kan.

Although the numbers vary widely from company to company, and edu-toys continue to grow in popularity, they still represent only about two of every 10 toys in a company’s promotion schedule, Morales said.

Some aren’t convinced that the edu-toys are doing either children or parents a service.

“We don’t think that any type of toy should be used to lure kids into fast-food restaurants, even if they call it educational,” said Josh Golin, associate director at the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.







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