Don Thompson, CEO of McDonald’s, was having a rough week. The day before, more than a thousand people had staged a raucous protest at McDonald’s headquarters to demand higher wages. Now, as Thompson addressed shareholders at his company’s 2014 Annual Meeting, a determined group of mothers from Corporate Accountability International’s #MomsNotLovinIt campaign were eager to question him about McDonald’s marketing practices. At the 2013 meeting, Thompson’s grilling by 9-year-old Hannah Robertson went viral and McDonald’s was so worried about incurring another PR disaster that they implemented a series of restrictive measures to limit the moms’ ability to speak.
Against this tense backdrop, Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition (the only mom McDonald’s allowed to speak at the meeting) addressed Thompson and voiced her concerns about the company’s marketing to children. Thompson quickly set out to reassure Kuzemchak. “Relative to our marketing, we have been marketing responsibly,” he told her. And then he dropped a bombshell, “We don’t put Ronald out in schools.”
If Thompson was looking to be the good guy for a change, he couldn’t have picked a better thing to say. It is particularly insidious to send a fast food mascot into classrooms at a time when schools have been tasked with instilling healthier eating habits in children. But any type of marketing in schools exploits a captive audience and is therefore fundamentally unethical. A brand new poll from the Center for a New American Dream found that 66% of respondents support a ban on advertising in schools. No wonder Thompson wanted his audience to believe his company wasn’t one of those icky in-school marketers.
There was just one problem: What Thompson said wasn’t true. Ronald McDonald regularly makes appearances at schools in the United States and around the world. To cite just two of many recent examples, in February 2014, he appeared before over 350 students at Carl Sandburg Elementary School in Joliet, Illinois and in March he performed two shows at Southern Elementary School in Falmouth, Kentucky. In Brazil, Ronald’s regular incursions into schools led the Instituto Alana to file a complaint against McDonald’s with the Ministries of Justice and Education.
Given the incongruity between the claim “We don’t put Ronald out in schools” and the reality of what has actually been taking place, the only way to make sense of Thompson’s remarks was to assume he was announcing a new “No Ronald in Schools” policy. So my organization, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, drafted a letter to Thompson that expressed our appreciation for the new policy and asked how it would be implemented. But as we circulated the letter to other organizations for their endorsement, a copy was leaked to McDonald’s. That’s when we got a lesson in corporate doublespeak.
I received an email from McDonald’s spokesperson Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem which stated:
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.
But no one ever claimed that Ronald was forcing his way into schools without the knowledge of administrators. And Barker Sa Shekhem’s email failed to address the dozens of McDonald’s websites that actively promote Ronald’s availability for school appearances, like this one that proclaims, “Ronald McDonald Wants to Come to Your School.” Nor did Barker Sa Shekham explain why Thompson also told shareholders, “in schools and our restaurants you never see Ronald McDonald.” (He named exceptions to the policy in restaurants, but not in schools.)
It’s hard to conclude anything from this mess except that Thompson either wasn’t telling the truth at the McDonald’s 2014 Annual Shareholder Meeting or he’s clueless about his own company’s in-school marketing. But McDonald’s still has a chance to make good on its CEO’s word by instituting a ban on Ronald McDonald school appearances. Because if, come September, we do in fact see Ronald McDonald in schools, it won’t only be bad news for children—it will be bad news for Don Thompson’s reputation.