Fast food giant McDonald's was just forced to withdraw a controversial program to sponsor report cards in Seminole County, central Florida, in exchange for a Happy Meal coupon on the cover that features an image of Ronald McDonald. (Children with A and B grades, with two or fewer absences or who exhibit good behavior were entitled to pick up a free Happy Meal at their local McDonald's, as long as they presented their report cards. The company paid the $1,600 cost of printing the report cards.)
The promotional campaign by the Illinois-based company was defeated by a small, but feisty, activist coalition named the Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood, which is based out of the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston.
In early December last year, CCFC launched a campaign against McDonald's when outraged parents contacted them. "My daughter worked so hard to get good grades this term and now she believes she is entitled to a prize from McDonald's," Susan Pagan, an Orlando parent, told CCFC. "And now I'm the "bad guy" because I had to explain that our family does not eat at fast food chains. I'm outraged that McDonald's is trying to exploit my daughter's achievement -- and that the Seminole County School Board would help facilitate this exploitation."
It's not the first time that McDonald's has tried to directly influence the eating habits of young children (nor, probably the last, unfortunately). Three years ago the company dropped a national campaign in the UK of providing educational material and teaching assistants to primary schools after a public backlash against the program by groups like McLibel.
And in the 1990s there was a hue and cry by groups like UNPLUG! of Oakland, California, after McDonald's and other companies provided "sponsored educational materials" on subjects like nutrition to teachers to supplement or take the place of approved curriculum in the U.S. The company was also protested for sponsoring McTeacher's Night in southern California, which involved teachers working at local McDonald's restaurants to raise funds for schools by selling burgers to their own students!
Yet perhaps the most devastating blow to McDonald's advertising to school-children was done by documentarian Morgan Spurlock with his film: SuperSize Me (the entire film can be watched for free online at http://freedocumentaries.org/film.php?id=98 ). In the film, Spurlock documents the impact of dining exclusively on McDonald's products for a 30-day time period. The film also explores the fast food industry's corporate influence, including how it encourages poor nutrition for its own profit. (An edited DVD version of the film designed to be integrated into a high school health curriculum is available from Arts Allliance America.)
NB: Full disclosure: This writer is a former fast food food industry employee with almost two years experience working fulltime in the business including stints at Burger King, McDonald's and Pizza Hut which allowed him to finance a diploma course in journalism school.