December 16th, 2007
Fast Food Gets its Greasy Hands on Report Cards
By Julie Deardorff
Susan Pagan’s 9-year-old daughter recently made the honor roll, but when the Florida mom saw the report card, she was appalled.
There on the envelope was a cartoon of Ronald McDonald along with a potential “food prize” for elementary school students who had good grades, behavior or attendance.
“Reward yourself with a Happy Meal!” the report card jacket urged. And to further associate fast food with praise, approval and success in the minds of young consumers, the offer also stipulated that the “report card must be presented at the time of ordering.”
Pagan, a business and community leader in the Orlando area, has worked in publishing, marketing and advertising for more than two decades. But she found this stunt so deplorable that she e-mailed the school superintendent of Seminole County Public Schools, where daughter Cathy Griffith attends elementary school.
The saddest part about this whole story? Pagan was told that she was the only parent who thought it was inappropriate to put fast-food ads on the report card jackets and that the district would consider her complaint next year.
Commercial exploitation of schoolchildren is nothing new. Several years ago, also in Florida, Krispy Kreme offered elementary school students a free doughnut for every A on their report cards. Channel One, Coke and Pepsi are comfortably ensconced in our nation’s public schools and “sponsor” ads can be seen on scoreboards and heard inside school buses.
So it’s not that surprising that Seminole County Public Schools have had an ongoing business partnership called “the report card incentive” with owners of local fast-food restaurants. For the last 10 years, Pizza Hut was the sponsor, and the “food prize” was a personal pan pizza. But this year, McDonald’s picked up most of the $1,600 report card printing costs—a pittance—and in return received a full-page ad, one the children carry home and back to school three times a year.
What’s the big deal? One free Happy Meal isn’t going to kill anyone, especially when many kids just want the toy, and “apple dippers” can be eaten with their cheeseburgers. Meanwhile, 1st graders aren’t going to see a picture of Chicken McNuggets on their report card and drive themselves to McDonald’s. It’s the parents who are responsible for what and where their kids eat. Blaming the schools and the restaurants, the thinking goes, is a cop-out.
These arguments, however, are profoundly naive. McDonald’s isn’t rewarding children with free Happy Meals to generate immediate sales. It’s branding its product early and often in impressionable young minds to build loyalty and create lifelong customers.
Like other fast-food chains that peddle highly caloric, low-nutrient food to kids, McDonald’s has been implicated in the obesity epidemic. Despite the report card ads, it recently agreed to stop marketing all food or beverage products in elementary schools and to advertise only its healthier options to children younger than 12.
“Unfortunately, no matter what specific product is being advertised, branding has an effect on children’s preferences for all their unhealthful products as well,” said Stanford University’s Thomas Robinson, co-author of a study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine that showed children as young as 3 can be swayed by brand preferences.
“McDonald’s is particularly clever at doing this,” added Robinson, director of the Center for Healthy Weight at Stanford Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. “When McDonald’s says that Ronald McDonald does not sell junk food to kids, they are being either very deceitful or very ignorant, and I doubt it is the latter. They know how powerful their brand is.”
It’s one thing if a parent decides to reward a child for good grades with a trip to McDonald’s. This is America, after all. It’s quite another for a company to attach its brand to an emotionally charged item like a report card and to equate happiness and approval with fast food.
Perhaps if public schools had adequate funding, they wouldn’t be tempted to partner with profit-seeking corporations. “It is really a shame that our schools feel that it is necessary to raise a few dollars by selling children to advertisers,” Robinson said. “It is easy pickings for those who want to advertise to children and families at very little cost.”