McDonald’s is in trouble: overall, Americans are eating healthier, and that’s bad news for the slinger of burgers, nuggets, and fries. Due to declining sales, the fast-food giant is making an effort to rebrand itself in the eyes of parents, in the hopes that they’ll stop avoiding the Golden Arches and start bringing in little Happy Meal eaters once again. The company plans to target schools in its new marketing campaign: getting involved in local fundraisers and children’s sports events, and even hosting “McTeachers Nights” that utilize the free labor of schoolteachers (as if teachers didn’t already have enough on their plates, so to speak).
Last week, during a conference with investors, McDonald’s revealed its new plan to infiltrate schools. It’s a response to seven months of declining sales at the chain; increasingly, junk food lovers appear to be leaning towards the somewhat healthier options offered by other fast food chains such as Chipotle, which now serves up billions of dollars of burritos per year and whose sales have grown by 1,143 percent since 2003. Chipotle’s advertising focuses on the sourcing of its ingredients, stressing a commitment to locally raised, organic produce, “responsibly raised” meats, and GMO- and preservative-free everything. Consumers are responding to those claims, and increasingly avoiding McDonald’s dubiously sourced, chemically-laden foods. The company’s strategy to target children with its Happy Meals and in-store playgrounds has obviously worked; 40 percent of children ages two to 11 ask their parents to take them to McDonald’s at least once a week. But parents are increasingly saying no, and the chain doesn’t want to miss out on the dollars of those potential sales. So it’s planning to show up at school fundraisers and sporting events, and is hoping that its strong presence in local communities will bring parents—and their salt- and fat-craving youngsters—back into its restaurants.
During the conference, the company’s US president Mike Andres told investors that the company will “start with Mom and we will be helping her to feel great about McDonald’s—whether it’s McTeacher’s Nights, sponsoring kids’ sports, being a visible partner in local initiatives.” The plan appears to be in action already; earlier this month, McDonald’s offered $12,500 in grants to elementary and middle schools in the Midwest. In order to reinforce the brand’s health-conscious image, each $500 grant was designed to “encourage educators to teach students about physical fitness and wellness in unique ways,” according to an article in Ashland, Kentucky’s Daily Independent.
Bettina Elias Siegel is a food policy commentator and author of the blog The Lunch Tray, where she writes about food policies that affect children. In May, she and five other mothers traveled to McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois to protest the company’s aggressive marketing to children. Corporate Accountability International, a corporate watchdog, invited the women as part of its #MomsNotLovinIt campaign, which claims that “McDonald’s has profited richly at a staggering cost to our children’s health.”
“When faced with flagging sales, the company seems to want to double down on its use of schools to reach impressionable children,” Siegel said. “Schools should be advertising-free zones, and that’s particularly true when the brand being promoted makes the vast majority of its profits off of the sale of unhealthy foods like shakes and fries.”
As Siegel pointed out, McDonald’s is well aware of the cash cow that children represent. But the company is also thinking ahead to the future, Siegel said, when those children will mature into adults—and it wants to hold onto them until then, too.
“McDonald’s knows quite well that getting its logo and messaging in front of young kids is a surefire way to create lifelong brand loyalty, and cash-strapped school districts have a hard time saying no to any programs that will help raise funds,” she said. “It’s a very troubling marriage of convenience that ultimately can set kids up for a lifetime of unhealthy eating.”
McDonald’s so-called “McTeacher’s Nights” are another part of its effort to woo school communities. During these fundraisers, the company’s website explains, “educators, students, parents, and friends are invited to their local McDonald’s to ‘work’ and raise money for a designated school-related cause.” Teachers get behind the counter to sling burgers, fries, and shakes, and “parents and children are encouraged to come to their local McDonald’s to see,” the website says. But the nights have come under fire; teachers have called the events “demeaning,” and Corporate Accountability International has said that “McDonald’s charitable activities are mostly self-serving and have significant negative ramifications for public health and policy.”
In an apparent effort to cut out the middlemen—wallet-toting parents—McDonald’s targeted kids directly over the summer, hosting a camp in the Phillippines. The “Kiddie Krew Workshop” was a five-day program during which five- to 12-year-old kids experienced “on-floor training like greeting customers and assisting the crew at the drive-thru and front counters,” according to to the McDonald’s website. At the end of the workshop, Kiddie Krew families were treated to “a day filled with exciting booths, games and a ton of prizes.”A Salon article called the camp “thinly veiled child labor.”
But the fast food giant insists it has families’ best interests at heart, and that its school-focused programming—as well as its menu offerings—are meant to foster a sense of community as well as good health.
“As a family company, McDonald’s takes our responsibility to children and families very seriously and we are proud that we offer food choices that fit within a balanced diet,” Becca Hary, the company’s director of global media relations, wrote in an email. “The activities outlined by Mike Andres, including McTeacher Nights and sponsoring kids’ sports teams, are positive actions that benefit families and communities.”
In addition to ramping up its efforts to lure parents and their kids, McDonald’s plans to eliminate unnecessary preservatives from its menu. It’s also attempting to be more transparent about how its food is made; recently, in a high-profile publicity move, the company hired former MythBusters co-host Grant Imahara to explain how menu items such as the McRib and Chicken McNuggets are created. But if the past several months are any indication, such changes might not be enough to get families back in the door—no matter how many Little League games Ronald McDonald attends.