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Down with the Clown: Third Graders Stand Up to McDonald’s Junk-Food Marketing

Last week at the McDonald’s shareholder meeting, the world’s largest fast food chain heard from a brave 9-year-old, Hannah Robertson. She was among a growing chorus of parents, teachers, and kids calling out the company for its relentless marketing to kids, especially with the use of its iconic clown, Ronald McDonald. (Who, by the way, I’ve always found creepy).

“It would be nice,” said Robertson at the company’s annual meeting in Chicago on Thursday, “if you stopped trying to trick kids into wanting to eat your food all the time.”

CEO Don Thompson responded, “We are not marketing unjustly to kids.”

Mr. Thompson, I’d like to introduce you to someone you might know: Ronald McDonald.

Last I checked, he was on your payroll, and he’s been busy peddling your products directly to kids, especially through relationships with the nation’s public schools.

Interesting that Thompson also claimed, “We’re not marketing to schools. We don’t do that.” Even though Ronald McDonald — or really, guys dressed up in the ridiculous clown costume — regularly visit public schools as part of the charity arm of the mega-company. In Kentucky, all-school assemblies are held with Ronald sharing ideas about “giving back to community.” And in Minnesota, Ronald invites elementary school kids to lunch.

That’s what my friend Mike McMahon found out when he got a notice from his daughter Gwen’s third-grade class: The end-of-year field trip to McDonald’s was touted as a celebration for the students who had collected more than 100,000 soda pop tabs to benefit Ronald McDonald Charity Houses. Two third-grade classes, including his daughter’s, would be taking the tabs to the local McDonald’s, in walking distance of the school, and having lunch there.

“It’s so tough,” said Mike. “Ronald McDonald Charity Houses provide an important service but they’re also integrated into McDonald’s corporate image and branding. It’s a lot for adults to work through, let alone as an 8-year-old.”

As parents, Mike and his wife had been working hard to raise their kids on a well-balanced diet and to teach them how to make informed choices about what they eat. So a school-day visit to McDonald’s was hard to explain to Gwen.

“I can count the times she’s eaten at a fast food chain on one hand, and never at McDonald’s,” explained Mike. “In fact, McDonald’s had always been a line in the sand, largely because of the marketing!”

So he decided to talk with Gwen about it.

“We didn’t want to pull her out of it,” Mike said. “We wanted to teach her about engagement.” And that’s just what they did.

After talking with her parents, Gwen decided that she wanted to write a letter to CEO Thompson and give it to Ronald. Excited by the idea, she went off with materials from Corporate Accountability International that Mike had given her about the company and its marketing tactics. She wrote her letter, addressed it to Don Thompson, CEO of McDonald’s, sealed it, and packed it in her bag for school.

The next day, Ronald gave a warm greeting to the group of nearly 50 students, teachers, and parents who carried with them the thousands of soda pop tabs for the Ronald McDonald Houses.

“The kids were very excited. The visit from Ronald was clearly a reward for a job well done. Yet McDonald’s represents just about everything that’s wrong with our food system and it goes against everything we’ve taught Gwen,” Mike said. “So sending her to McDonald’s on a school sanctioned trip didn’t sit right with me.”

The school made it clear the kids didn’t have to actually eat food from McDonald’s. Gwen was one of three kids in her class who didn’t eat at McDonald’s that day.

As Ronald gathered the kids together, they piled big bags of soda tabs into his arms. A heap of them sat at his feet. As he presented an award to the teachers and students, Gwen stepped up.

She handed her letter to Ronald.

Ronald looked at the envelope with CEO Don Thompson written across it. “I don’t know who this is,” he said. Gwen didn’t back down.

“I’m … I’m not a mailman. What do want me to do with this?” Ronald stammered.

When it was clear that Gwen was insistent he take the letter, Ronald quietly slipped the envelope into his pocket and got back to the regularly scheduled PR.

If any 8-year-old could understand the need for supporting families caring for kids in hospitals, it would be Gwen. Her younger brother spent 121 days in the hospital after he was born due to complications from his pre-term birth. Luckily, her family lives near the hospital, so they could stay at home. But, as Mike says, Gwen knows Ronald McDonald Charity Houses “are helpful to families with children in the hospital.” That’s all the more reason her letter to the CEO was so poignant.

This is what she wrote:

Dear Mr. Thompson,

I think that in order to help the Ronald McDonald houses even more, you should cut down on the advertising and spend the money that you’ve saved on the Ronald McDonald houses. For example, if you stopped advertising the Happy Meals you could spend 115,000,000 dollars more on the houses, and that would be a lot more families helped.

Gwen, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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