Speaking Truth to Ronald

by Bettina Elias Siegel on May 23, 2014

I’ve just come back from Oak Brook, Illinois where yesterday I attended the annual McDonald’s shareholders’ meeting.  I was hoping for a chance to speak face-to-face with CEO Don Thompson about the company’s aggressive marketing to children but, as you’ll read below, the corporation made that rather hard to do.

I went to Oak Brook as part of a delegation of concerned moms and bloggers invited by Corporate Accountability International (CAI) in connection with their #MomsNotLovinIt campaign.  The group included Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition, Casey Hinds of KY Healthy Kids, Leah Segedie, founder of the Mamavation community, Migdalia Rivera, associate campaign director at MomsRising.org, and Rosa Perea, a health educator and assistant director of the Centro Comunitario Juan Diego in Chicago’s South Side.  Also with us was Greg Akili (who goes by “Akili”), a Los Angeles-based social justice activist.

As you may have read in 2013 (and again yesterday in USA Today), then-nine-year-old Hannah Robertson, also a CAI guest and daughter of food blogger Kia Robertson, made quite a splash at last year’s shareholder meeting when she told Thompson that McDonald’s should stop using kid-directed marketing to “trick” kids into eating its “food that isn’t good for them.”  Hannah’s statement, which was widely reported and which led to an appearance on Good Morning America, was a PR black eye for the corporation.

Are you running from my question, Ronald?

Are you running from my question, Ronald?

But when we walked into the shareholder meeting yesterday morning, it became clear that this year McDonald’s was determined to keep tight control over the proceedings.

For example, in the past, questions to the CEO were posed on a first-in-line basis —  and CAI has proven itself to be very adept at quickly leading its guests up to the microphones.  This year, however, we were greeted by a large sign indicating that all questions to Mr. Thompson had to be submitted in writing, and that only those individuals whose questions were selected in advance by the corporation would be able to address Mr. Thompson at the meeting.

It might seem a bit paranoid to believe that this change in policy was made solely in anticipation of our attendance, but when we moms submitted our proxy agreements and received our IDs, we realized that only our six badges – out of the hundreds of badges issued to the other meeting attendees – bore a bright red sticker.  Hmm.  It was quite clear then that McDonald’s knew exactly who we were and that they planned to keep close tabs on us.

The "Scarlet Sticker Six!" L-R, me, Migdalia, Rosa, Leah, Casey and Sally

The “Scarlet Sticker Six!” L-R, me, Migdalia, Rosa, Leah, Casey and Sally

Two of us were told to wait for a McDonald’s lawyer to speak with us before we were allowed to take our IDs, and eventually the same lawyer approached all six of us.  We were told only that we weren’t allowed to live-tweet the meeting, which was fine with us - none of us had our phones with us at any rate. But once we went into the meeting room, where we were free to choose our own seats, some of us noticed that McDonald’s employees took seats right next to us or immediately behind us.

Because of the new and restrictive questioning policy, McDonald’s could easily have prevented all of us from speaking at the meeting.  However, I predicted to my seat mate that the company would choose just one person from our group to avoid the PR disaster of completely silencing “the moms,” and that’s exactly what happened. Sally Kuzemchak was selected by Mr. Thompson and gave a terrific statement from her perspective as a mother of two and a registered dietitian.  (I believe she’ll have her statement up on Real Mom Nutrition later today.)  But the McDonald’s strategy didn’t go quite according to plan:  during the main meeting (before the question and answer session) three other people in our party  – Sriram Madhusoodanan of CAI, Casey Hinds and Leah Segedie — took procedural advantage of a shareholder vote to also deliver their own powerful statements.

When the meeting concluded, those of us who were unable deliver our statements were hoping to chat briefly with some of the McDonald’s executives, as we’d been told that they typically mingle with the crowd after a meeting.  But this year the executives hustled out of the room almost immediately; Akili did speak with Mr. Thompson for a few seconds but then he rounded a corner and was gone.  I was able to speak with Bob Langert, Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility, and later in the day I talked briefly with Heidi Barker, a McDonald’s spokesperson.  While I’m pretty sure I did nothing to change either of their opinions on the ethics of advertising to children, I did appreciate their time.

But the reason why I left my kids and husband in Texas and flew to Illinois, in the middle of a busy school week, was to have 45 seconds to speak directly to McDonald’s key decision-maker, CEO Don Thompson.  Unfortunately, though, Mr. Thompson and his company did their level best to keep that encounter from taking place.

In case you’re wondering, here’s the statement and question I would have posed to him, had I been given the opportunity:

I’m Bettina Siegel, a parent and writer about issues relating to children and food.

McDonald’s now includes milk and apples in its Happy Meals and it touts those foods in its ads directed toward children. But let’s be honest:  children don’t nag their parents to go to McDonald’s because they want milk and apples.  They nag their parents because they want burgers and fries, as well as the Happy Meal toys you use to entice young children.

By targeting kids with hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising, you clearly hope to make them lifelong consumers of your brand.  But the American Academy of Pediatrics states that any advertising to young children is “inherently deceptive” and “exploitative.”

One in three children will develop type 2 diabetes as a result of diets high in McDonald’s-style junk food and will likely live shorter lives than their parents.

Mr. Thompson, will McDonald’s acknowledge its role in this health crisis and agree to cease all marketing to our most vulnerable population, our children?

Meanwhile, if McDonald’s was hoping to keep our concerns out of the public eye by suppressing our participation in the meeting Q&A, their strategy seems to have failed. Here’s a list, which is likely to grow in the coming days, of mainstream media outlets noting our presence at the meeting and, in some cases, including interviews with members of our group:

This list doesn’t include the many blog posts and and other social media conversations which mentioned our efforts, including live tweets of the meeting from the New York Times‘ food industry reporter, Stephanie Strom, and the Associated Press‘s food industry reporter, Candace Choi.

Our group, taking a photo after the meeting on the grounds of McDonald's HQ, aka "Hamburger University"

Our group, taking a photo after the meeting on the grounds of McDonald’s HQ, aka “Hamburger University”

Let me end by saying that this sort of face-to-face activism was very much outside the comfort zone of many of us, myself included, and we were so grateful for the supportive tweets and Facebook messages sent by our readers and colleagues. I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank CAI for making this trip possible and for being one of the most efficient and effective groups I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. And I so enjoyed getting to know (or reconnecting with) this incredible group of women, each of whom came to the issue of junk food marketing to children from different life experiences, but all of whom spoke out about it with grace and courage.

And if Mr. Thompson ever does decide to answer my question above, I promise you’ll be the first to know about it.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Aviva May 23, 2014 at 7:00 am

Bettina, you are my she-ro! I love the way you use your talents and brains for the good of our children. On behalf of moms everywhere, thank you for making that trip!

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Wendy May 23, 2014 at 7:37 am

Glad you tried! With you all and the workers protesting wages, they had their hands full!

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Casey May 23, 2014 at 8:18 am

Great recap! When the CEO responds to our concerns with “You never see Ronald in schools” it makes me wonder if their executives are completely out of touch with reality.
http://kyhealthykids.com/2014/05/23/mcdonalds-not-lovin-moms-at-shareholders-meeting/

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Midge Elias May 23, 2014 at 9:10 am

Bettina, you are absolutely amazing! Great trip for such a worthy cause.

Unbiased Mom

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Sue May 23, 2014 at 9:30 am

B
What a great post. Ty both for the clear recitation of events and your sharing your own discomfort at the confrontational aspects. So illuminating. It’s funny how in part I feel outside this dialog as a non-mom. And I see the far broader social context in which this issue resides, and I’m right there w you. Rah

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Ronald McNopants May 26, 2014 at 2:04 pm

There are many people that consider Ronald McDonald to be the greatest man alive.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCWdsFqBaqA

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