McD’s Report Card Ads Draw Fire

NEW YORK Susan Pagan was surprised by her 9-year-old daughter’s report card. It wasn’t the fact that she made the honor role. Rather it was the fact that she expected to get a free Happy Meal because of her grades.

“She came home bubbly and happy about her report card,” said Pagan. “On the cover was a McDonald’s ad. I was blown away.”

As part of a joint business partnership with The School Board of Seminole County, Fla., McDonald’s offered students food prizes for A’s and B’s, citizenship and attendance. The offer was valid for kindergartners through fifth graders.

Pagan viewed this ad as “preying on our children’s vulnerabilities especially inlight of the obesity epidemic.”

District spokesperson Regina Klaers said the sponsorships had never been an issue before. It previously had a partnership with Pizza Hut for 10 years. “As long as we’ve been doing it, it has never come to a head like this…the letter from one parent was the only complaint we’ve had.”

Klaers said the district, which began the promotional relationship with McDonald’s this year, will continue to run the McDonald’s ads on report cards for the rest of the year. However, it “will take the complaint into consideration for the next school year.”

In July, McDonald’s was one of the 11 companies who pledged to either ban advertising to children under 12 or limit them to food and snacks that meet certain nutritional guidelines.

Additionally, last month 44 companies were required to send the Federal Trade Commission detailed information about their marketing practices.

“This is yet another example that self regulation by food marketers has failed,” said Susan Linn, director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “I’m not shocked that McDonald’s tried to do this, I’m shocked the school district went along with it.”

The Seminole County district said it has created such partnerships for years. Pizza Hut had been a partner for a decade and opted not to participate for the 2007-08 school year. McDonald’s took its place. Under the terms of the deal, McDonald’s fronted the bill ($1,600) for the printing costs associated with produced report cards for 27,000 students.

“McDonald’s has a long-standing and rich heritage of supporting education and academic excellence,” said William Whitman, a rep for McDonald’s USA, Oak Brook, Ill. “McDonald’s does not advertise in schools. However, we continue to support education initiatives in the communities we serve.”

Darrin Tristano evp of the food-service consultancy Technomic, Chicago, said McDonald’s efforts to aid schools should be applauded. “Providing to funds for the ability to promote themselves is a good thing for them. They are supporting education and good academics.”

He points to the fact the McDonald’s has made strides in what they offer. Happy Meals now offer apple slices, milk and premium chicken. “I think this parent is in the minority view. Most people are happy to get a free Happy Meal for their kids because they go there anyway.”

Not Pagan though. She said explaining to her daughter that they weren’t going to collect the free Happy Meal “made me look like the bad guy.”