This past May, I was one of six concerned moms who attended the annual McDonald’s shareholder meeting in connection with Corporate Accountability International’s #MomsNotLovinIt campaign. (You can read all about our day in Oak Brook, IL here: “Speaking Truth to Ronald“)
One of the moms in our group, Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition, was selected during the meeting’s Q&A period to pose a question to McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson, and she took the opportunity to express her concern about the company’s aggressive marketing to children. In response to Kuzemchak’s question, Thompson surprised many of us in attendance by proclaiming unequivocally that “we don’t put Ronald out in schools,” a statement which would seem to be contradicted by the many Ronald McDonald in-school programs offered by the company.
In response to Thompson’s unexpected statement, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) began to prepare an international coalition letter to ask McDonald’s if it had changed its corporate policy with respect to the use of Ronald in schools, which would be welcome news for those of us who believe that such marketing simply has no place on campuses.
But somehow a draft of the CCFC letter was leaked to McDonald’s, whereupon the company’s spokesperson, Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem, quickly tried to backtrack from CEO Thompson’s statement. In an email to CCFC, Barker Sa Shekhem told the organization that it had “incorrectly” deduced that “comments made by our CEO Don Thompson at our Annual Meeting reflect a new ‘policy’ regarding Ronald McDonald.” Here is Barker Sa Shekhem’s clarification:
… there is no new policy regarding Ronald McDonald. Mr. Thompson was correct in stating that “we don’t put Ronald out in schools.” Obviously, only schools or affiliated groups manage their invited guests.
Following Barker Sa Shekhem’s logic, one could say that CocaCola doesn’t “put” vending machines touting its beverage brands in school hallways, Pizza Hut doesn’t “put” branded signage for its Book-It program into school classrooms and Domino’s doesn’t “put” clearly branded boxes of its Smart Slice pizza in school cafeterias.
Yes, it’s true that such advertising only appears in schools if districts allow it, but to say that food and beverage companies, McDonald’s included, don’t actively pursue the school market is utterly disingenuous. Indeed, in 2009, such companies spent an astounding $150 million to make sure their brands were seen by this impressionable young audience in the school setting.
Noting correctly that, based on Barker Sa Shekhem’s email, CEO Thompson appears to have materially misled shareholders at the annual meeting with respect to McDonald’s youth marketing practices, CCFC has gone forward with a revised version of its international coalition letter, a letter I was glad to sign on behalf of The Lunch Tray.
You can read the full text of the letter below. And of course I’ll let you know if McDonald’s responds.
Dear Mr. Thompson,
As advocates for children and public health, we were extremely interested in your remarks at the 2014 Annual Shareholders Meeting. In response to a question about how McDonald’s markets to children, you said, “we don’t put Ronald out in schools” and “in schools and our restaurants you never see Ronald McDonald.”You listed exceptions to the policy in restaurants, but not in schools.
We were so pleased that you rightly recognized that schools should be off-limits to commercial advertising and branding. Over the past several years, Ronald McDonald has been a regular visitor to preschools and elementary schools in the United States, Brazil, and countries around the world. These visits, which were supposedly designed to inspire physical activity, literacy, and pro-social skills, promoted McDonald’s to a captive audience of schoolchildren through exposure to, and interaction with, the brand’s most powerful icon.
Based on your remarks, we believed that McDonald’s new policy was to no longer send Ronald McDonald into schools. Now, however, we are confused.
On July 11, 2014 Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem, your Vice President of Corporate Relations, sent an email to Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood in response to a draft of a letter intended for you that was circulating internationally among organizations that care about children. Ms. Barker Sa Shekhem stated we “incorrectly” deduced that “comments made by our CEO Don Thompson at our Annual Meeting reflect a new ‘policy’ regarding Ronald McDonald.”
Ms. Barker Sa Shekhem went on to say:
To be clear, there is no new policy regarding Ronald McDonald. Mr. Thompson was correct in stating that “we don’t
put Ronald out in schools.” Obviously, only schools or affiliated groups manage their invited guests. When invited to
schools by administrations, or affiliated organizations such as parent-teacher groups, Ronald McDonald presents programs about bike safety, literacy or other children’s well-being matters.
This would appear to contradict your strong assertion that “you never see Ronald McDonald” in schools. If Ronald McDonald does still appear in schools, why are you telling stockholders that he doesn’t? If your assertion is accurate, then is there perhaps a new policy of which Ms. Barker Sa Shekhem is unaware?
If that’s the case—and in the best interest of children, we hope that it is—please answer the following questions about how this new policy is being implemented:
- Will you publicly post your new policy regarding Ronald McDonald’s in-school visits, that is, that Ronald McDonald does not go to schools? Will you update your pledge with the Council of Better Business Bureaus Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative to reflect this new policy?
- Ronald McDonald visits to elementary and preschools have occurred not only in the United States, but in other countries including Brazil, China, Australia, and The Netherlands. Does your new policy prohibiting Ronald McDonald visits to schools apply worldwide?
- In response to criticisms of other McDonald’s in-school marketing programs, spokespeople for your company have said the programs were “local decisions.” How was McDonald’s new policy communicated to local franchises and regional marketing associations? Are you aware that several local and regional McDonald’s websites are still promoting Ronald McDonald’s availability for school visits?
- If parents or educators are aware of Ronald McDonald school visits, to whom should they report the violation of McDonald’s policy?
If you are accurate that Ronald McDonald is never seen in schools, we would applaud McDonald’s decision to end the exploitative practice of using him to market to children in schools. If not, we urge you to change McDonald’s policies to be in line with your characterization of them.
We look forward to your reply.
Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, United States
Instituto Alana, Brazil
Berkeley Media Studies Group, United States
California Center for Public Health Advocacy, United States
California Project LEAN, United States
Campaign for Commercial-Free Education, Ireland
CEASE, United States
Center for a New American Dream, United States
Center for Science in the Public Interest, United States
Childhood without Advertising (Stowarzyszenie Dziecko bez Reklamy), Poland
Children’s Food Campaign, Sustain, United Kingdom
Consumers International, Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, Chile
Corporate Accountability International, United States
Defending the Early Years, United States
Dietitians For Professional Integrity, United States
Earth Day Network, United States
Eat Drink Politics, United States
Educators for Social Responsibility, United States
El Poder del Consumidor, Mexico
Food & Water Watch, United States
Food Democracy Now!, United States
foodwatch International, Europe
Heart of Mersey, United Kingdom
Idec – Instituto Brasileiro de Defesa do Consumidor, Brazil
Intervozes – Coletivo Brasil de Comunicação Social, Brazil
Kidz Inc., United Arab Emirates
Nancy Huehnergarth Consulting, United States
National Union of Teachers, United Kingdom
Obligation, Inc., United States
Observatório de Políticas de Segurança Alimentar e Nutrição – OPSAN/ UnB, Brazil
Organic Consumers Association, United States
PEACHSF, United States
Proteste – Associação de Consumidores, Brazil
Psychologists for Social Responsibility, United States
Public Citizen, United States
Public Health Institute, United States
Real Food Media Project, United States
Rethinking Schools, United States
Save Childhood Movement, United Kingdom
Small Planet Institute, United States
SuperKids Nutrition, United States
Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE), United States
Teaching for Change, United States
The Lunch Tray, United States
UK Health Forum, United Kingdom
US Healthy Kids, United States
Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America, United States
Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, United States
1 Audio recording of 2014 McDonald’s Annual Shareholder Meeting available athttps://mcdonalds.webcasts.com/viewer/event.jsp?ei=1035732. Relevant remarks begin at 46:47
3 See Appendix A: Ronald McDonald School Visits – United States.
4 (2013, September). Alana denuncia ação do mcdonald’s em escolas para os ministérios da justiça e da educação e para secretarias de educação. alana. Accessed July 25, 2014 from http://defesa.alana.org.br/post/62812363307/alana-denuncia-acao-do-mcdon….
5 Dyer, G. (2006, November 25). Ronald helps McDonald’s head off China backlash. Financial Times. Accessed July 25, 2014 from http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/56b66b0a-7c29-11db-b1c6-0000779e2340.html….
6 (2013, September 10). School supports special event. The Western Star (Roma, Queensland). Accessed July 25, 2014 from LexisNexis Academic.
7 Zech, M. (2014, June 25). STOP FOOD ADVERTISING IN SCHOOLS. Foodwatch. Accessed July 25, 2014 fromhttp://www.nltimes.nl/2014/06/25/stop-food-advertising-schools-foodwatch/.
8 Elliot, S. (2007, December 6). Straight A’s, With a Burger as a Prize. The New York Times. Accessed June 30, 2014 from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/06/business/media/06adco.html?pagewanted=all.
9 See Appendix B: McDonald Websites that Advertise Ronald McDonald School Visits in the United States.