How often does a nine-year-old get to scold one of the most powerful CEOs in the world? Not often enough.
But on May 23, third-grader Hannah Robertson did exactly that at the McDonald’s shareholders meeting when she told CEO Don Thompson, “It would be nice if you stopped trying to trick kids into wanting to eat your food all the time.”
The nine-year-old read a prewritten statement criticizing the fast-food chain’s nutritional deficiencies and marketing tactics. She asked, “Mr. Thompson, don’t you want kids to be healthy so they can live a long and happy life?”
The third-grader was in attendance with her mother, Kia Robertson, a health-food blogger who came to the conference with other members of Corporate Accountability International, a human rights advocacy group that’s hoping to stop what they say is the fast-food chain’s predatory marketing to kids.
CEO Don Thompson responded by denying the allegations, saying, “First off, we don’t sell junk food, Hannah,” he said. “My kids also eat McDonald’s. When they were about your size, to my son who is with us today...”
Thompson also added his company doesn’t unjustly market to kids or to schools. “We sell a lot of fruits and veggies and are trying to sell even more,” he said.
In recent years, the company has cleaned up its Happy Meals by decreasing the size of kid’s french fry servings and adding apple slices. And salads have been added as regular options for adults.
But while those moves may be a step in the right direction, critics agree with Hannah’s assertion that the company is covertly marketing to children.
Anna Lappe, the Project Director of Food Mythbusters, and a member of CPI, recently wrote about the tactics used by the fast-food industry—including McDonald’s—to build brand awareness with their smallest customers.
And while she asserts parents do need to set boundaries with their children about nutritional choices, “The ways the food industry now targets kids are so pervasive and the tactics so deceitful that even the most diligent parent cannot prevent their kids from being inundated at the most impressionable stages in their development.”
Lappe cites that the junk-food industry now advertises to young students inside school gyms, buses, textbooks and yearbooks. They’ve since gone digital and added an array of computer games and websites for children.
But what may be most confounding for kids is that the company’s Ronald McDonald House charity often partners with schools for fundraising efforts. Critics say it’s those events that teach children early on to associate the fast-food chain with community service and family health. As CPI’s Sriram Madhusoodanan told NPR, “That’s exactly how they build brand loyalty.”
Hannah Robertson isn’t buying it. She not only confronted Don Thompson, but she also regularly makes Youtube videos with her mother for their site, Today I Ate a Rainbow, which promotes healthy eating and home cooking for children and their parents.
And at just nine years old, she joins the ranks of other outspoken children who are making public demands for quality and honesty from the companies and institutions providing them with care.
Some of her peers include 10-year-old NewYork City-based Zachary Maxwell, who recently made a movie about his disgust with his school’s lunch program, spurring authorities to improve it. And 10-year-old Chicago-based Asean Johnson has become a lightning rod for education activism, giving an impassioned public speech where he openly criticized Rahm Emanuel for attempting to shut down his school.
While Hannah may not have succeeded in changing Don Thompson’s viewpoints, her well-articulated arguments certainly brought national attention to critical issues. Not bad for a third-grader.
Do you agree that McDonald’s unfairly markets to children? And if so, what role should parents play in keeping those marketing tactics to a minimum?