Open Letter: McDonald’s ad has no place in a kindergarten workbook

By: CCFC Member Heather DuBois Bourenane

My kids go to a great school, and they have great teachers. I want to say that first.  I don’t doubt the vigilance or intelligence of their teachers, or whether they’re being educated to a high standard.  I know they are.  But sometimes things slip through the cracks, and when they do, I feel obligated to speak out.

So when my kindergartener brought home a school-published “My Counting and Number Writing Book” last week, I was really shocked to find this advertisement included in the middle of a stapled workbook of sheets from various sources – an otherwise innocuous and adorable collection of pages asking them to count the pennies, stars, animals, etc.  How McDonald’s managed to pass off this shameless advertisement as a “lesson,” and how it made it through the filter of professional inspection, I don’t know.  I’ve heard some educators appeal to “branding” as a way to teach reading since kids recognize logos from a very young age, but I find this appeal troubling and naive. And as a parent who tries to both teach healthy eating habits and shield my children from invasive marketing, I have a real problem with this sort of brazen infiltration of our classrooms by the McDonald’s corporate marketing machine. [Click here and here for particularly disturbing exercises I found on the NYC schools website].

I don’t know or care who is responsible for putting this workbook together, but I think communities need to stand together to protect our kids from this constant and manipulative exposure. This sort of propaganda has no place in the classroom; our kids are exposed to enough of this outside of it.

Below is the letter I sent to my child’s teacher and the principal of the school; I plan to forward it to the School Board and encourage parents everywhere to be vigilant about the ways their children are manipulated as a captive advertising audience. I also encourage parents to follow the work being done at the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which works to expose and address inappropriate solicitations and manipulations of children by advertisers.

Our kids are not for sale.  Nor should they be considered a captive audience to unscrupulous marketers while they are in school.  We can stand up to this corporate bullying, but first we have to speak out.

So here’s the letter.  Making it open, like I do, as a reminder of how important it is to play an active role in making a difference:

Hi —- and —-!

I was just going through my daughter’s “My Counting and Number Writing Book” and was disturbed to see this double-page advertisement for McDonald’s asking her to tally fries, burgers, characters, logos, ice cream, soda, Happy Meals, etc. 

I know it’s only one page and not the biggest deal in the world, but the power of advertising on young children has long been documented, and I don’t think there’s any place for this in a school workbook.  It’s also a confusing contradiction to the District’s Health and Wellness guidelines we’re trying hard to instill in our kids at home as well. 

I don’t know where this particular page came from, or if you even took much note of it buried deep in the book, but I really don’t think it’s ok to include this sort of blatant advertising in our kids’ lessons.  Children are not a captive demographic for advertisers, and I find this an inappropriate and invasive intrusion into their school time.

I would ask that this sort of branding and promotion from any company be weeded out from these materials in the future.  Kids are exposed constantly to such advertising. If McDonald’s or any other company wants to advertise in the school, they should be paying to do so, and that decision should be vetted by the community through the school board.

I want to stress that this is not a criticism of you or your teaching, and I appreciate all the time and effort that goes into preparing these books and grading them.  But I wanted to raise my concerns and ask that the teachers take a look at other ways advertisers are sneaking free ads into our kids’ learning time.   I have been following the work of a great organization called Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and it’s really horrifying how sneaky and manipulative some of these attempts to target children can be. Don’t even get me started on how upset I was when my kids learned the “Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut” song in preschool! 

I thank you for all you do!

Update (5/28/2013)

As expected, the teacher was in total agreement about these materials and confirmed that she had not compiled them herself.  She’s taken them out of the master copy, so they won’t show up again.  I told you she was a great teacher!  Even so, though, this is an important reminder that we need to be vigilant and pay attention to what our kids are bringing home from school.  It takes a village, right?  

I also received very positive feedback from the school board and a follow-up email from a district administrator stating “I am very relieved that you were able to receive information promptly today, with regard to your concern about the math worksheets which included McDonald’s graphics.  Your concern for the inappropriate nature of the content was very justified. It is imperative to guard against these forms of advertising in our schools. Students have a right to be shielded from this type of external influence.”

Which just goes to show: parental involvement is a leading factor in student success for more than one reason. 

Be aware. Be involved.  Be the change.


Heather DuBois Bourenane is the mother of two kids who attend an excellent Wisconsin public school.  By night, she advocates for free and equal high quality public education; by day, she teaches English at Madison College and serves as Program Coordinator for the Great World Texts program at the Center for the Humanities, University of Wisconsin-Madison. She blogs at Monologues of Dissent.

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