McDonald’s briefly offered Step-it Activity Bands in Happy Meals. They were discontinued after reports that they irritated children’s skin. (Ian Hardy/

McDonald’s plan to get children active by providing them with fitness trackers ended almost as quickly as it started. The fast-food company replaced the toys in its Happy Meals with pedometers, but soon scrapped the devices after “limited” reports surfaced that they could irritate children’s skin.

But even before the devices raised safety concerns — “Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our customers,” a spokeswoman said — they sparked mockery and anger from some customers who called attention to the apparent hypocrisy of McDonald’s encouraging children to exercise while also serving them high-fat foods.

Indeed, the paradox of a fitness monitor wedged in a Happy Meal box alongside chicken nuggets and french fries is hard to ignore. Even the healthiest Happy Meal combination will have children ingesting 410 calories and 19 grams of fat, according to the company’s online nutrition calculator. That’s a lot of steps.

To its credit, the Oak Brook, Ill.-based company has made efforts to shake its Super Size image. The company has introduced healthier items to its menu in recent years, such as salads and grilled chicken sandwiches. The options for children, in particular, have seen a calorie-conscious reboot as apple slices, yogurt and fat-free chocolate milk joined the options from which parents can choose. McDonald’s declined to comment for this story.

So why did customers receive the Step-It Activity Bands with, at best, a healthy helping of snark? McDonald’s may be the latest example of corporate social responsibility gone awry. A buzzy phrase in the business world, corporate social responsibility essentially encapsulates the goodwill efforts a company makes in the communities where it operates.

But not all good deeds are equal. Jerry Kim, a management professor at Rutgers Business School, said consumers are savvy enough to differentiate when a company’s actions are for the good of society and when they are simply veiled attempts to pad their bottom line. Even situations where the motivation may be murky open the door to scrutiny from customers. An obvious example is the common practice among hotel chains to urge customers to reuse bath towels. Do they really want to save the planet, or just save on their energy costs?

When corporate social responsibility “is perfectly aligned with a company’s strategic interest, then the motivation for that activity is not clear,” Kim said. “If it also helps you, then people don’t know if you’re doing it for the greater good or for your own self-interest.”

The McDonald’s case is particularly transparent. For decades, Happy Meal toys have served as an added incentive for children to crave fast food and nag parents for another trip through the drive-through. That all equates to greater sales for McDonald’s, which has seen its global profit sag in recent years.

During their limited offering, the Step-It Activity Bands came in six vibrant colors and lit up while in motion. They certainly appealed to children, said Kim, whose own children got them before they were discontinued.

It doesn’t help that McDonald’s was behind the effort. A company with a more favorable public persona or track record of promoting healthy living may have gotten the benefit of consumers’ doubt, Kim said. But it’s hard to believably encourage health with one hand and dole out Big Macs with the other.

“It may be the case that whatever they do, people are going to find a way to see the cynical side of it,” Kim said. “In this case, it was a little too easy for people to criticize and take the cynical view on it.”

“The double-edge sword of having a strong brand is you can’t change it overnight and make your image into something that it wasn’t before,” he added.

This isn’t the first health-related faux pas for McDonald’s, either. Earlier this year, the company stopped giving nutrition advice to students in schools after parents and health organizations said it misled students about the health implications of fast food.