9-year-old to CEO: McDonald’s marketing “tricks kids”

Although global sales have lagged in recent months, McDonald's remains the most-visited retail business in America.
Although global sales have lagged in recent months, McDonald’s remains the most-visited retail business in America.

Thursday marked McDonald’s Corp. CEO Don Thompson’s first time presiding over an annual shareholder meeting since becoming head of the company last June. He came off charismatic and good humored, yet humble and sincere.

But it was nine-year-old Hannah Robertson who stole the show when she got up to speak after the floor was opened up for questions.

“My mom taught me there are things in life that just aren’t fair like when a pet dies,” Hannah said. “I don’t think it’s fair when big companies try to trick kids into eating food that isn’t good for them.”

She was referencing McDonald’s marketing directed towards children. Hannah and her mom, Kia Robertson, run a website called “Today I Ate a Rainbow,” which is dedicated to child nutrition.

Hannah continued with surprising poise and emphatic delivery, adding that many kids her age suffer from obesity and diet-related illnesses due to eating “junk food” from fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s.

“Don’t you want kids to be healthy so they can live a long and happy life?” she asked CEO Thompson.

Thompson smiled and thanked her for her question.

“We don’t sell junk food, Hannah,” he assured her, going on to mention the healthy items McDonald’s already sells – apples in Happy Meals, side salads, fat-free milk – and the plans in place to add more to the menu. “We’re making a lot of changes at McDonald’s and we’ll continue to.”

McDonald’s has added several “healthy” items to its menu in recent months, but the company is struggling to overcome its reputation as bad-for-you.

Of all the complaints raised at the meeting, health-related concerns were by far the most frequent. Several members of Corporate Accountability International. a Boston-based watchdog group, spoke out, as well as a physician and professor at Vanderbilt University.

Michelle Dyer, who described her self as a recent graduate, chided Thompson for “targeting children of color” through the company’s use of black athletes and hip hop music in its advertisements.

Being a black man himself, Thompson said he was personally offended at her remarks.

“You accuse us of doing things we don’t do,” he said. “We are not the brand you see and describe.”

The annual shareholder's meeting was held at the Hyatt Lodge on the McDonald's corporate headquarters campus in Oak Brook.
The annual shareholder’s meeting was held at the Hyatt Lodge on the McDonald’s corporate headquarters campus in Oak Brook.

One shareholder proposal on the ballot requested the company release a nutrition report to evaluate whether McDonald’s  is doing enough to address fast food’s role in diet-related disease. Fewer than 7 percent of shareholders voted in favor of it.

Still, Tamiko Beyer, an advocacy writer for Corporate Accountability International, called it progress.

“The fact that 6.3 percent voted represents thousands of shareholders that are really concerned about this issue,” Beyer said.

Some shareholders at the meeting thought the health and nutrition comments were over the top.

“There were so many people beating up on McDonald’s, saying they’re selling bad stuff to people,” complained shareholder Joanne Champion. “It’s kind of odd.”

McDonald’s now posts nutritional information on its menus, but many believe the company should do more to promote a healthy diet and lifestyle.

Hannah’s mom conceded that parents are ultimately responsible for what they feed their children and the fostering of healthy habits, but she wishes corporations such as  McDonald’s would recognize their own responsibilities.

“You are a leader in your industry so you know very well that the fast-food industry is changing,” said Robertson. “Maybe it’s time for some genuine change at McDonald’s.”

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