Waters: Kelowna girl’s confrontation with McDonald’s boss was brilliant marketing

Nine-year-old's chastisement of McDonald's CEO gave her healthy eating website plenty of international publicity.

McDonalds has its detractors. That’s not new.

One British couple, who published a pamphlet critical of McDonalds food in the mid-1980s in England, was sued for libel by the restaurant giant and, after 10 years in court, the case became the longest-running lawsuit in British legal history. McDonald’s won.

Movie maker Morgan Sperlock made a popular, Academy Award-nominated documentary called Super Size Me that detailed his 30 day-diet of nothing but McDonald’s food. The movie was critical of the nutritional value of the food Sperlock ate.

Privately, many people complain about McDonald’s, and some even call what it produces “junk” food. In response, the company has developed a website with videos rebutting some of the most popular questions/accusations/myths about McDonald’s food.

But despite all the complaints, McDonald’s continues to be one of the biggest companies in the world and rakes in billions in profit every year. McDonald’s restaurants remain hugely popular with diners and the chain is the biggest fast food seller in the world.

But last week, a little Kelowna girl got big play from the world’s media by directly challenging the company’s CEO over the way it markets its food to kids.

Nine-year-old Hannah Robertson, whose mother, a nutritional activist who runs a website that teaches kids to eat healthy foods, accused McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson of running a company that tricks kids into eating food that isn’t good for them by including toys using cartoon characters. And she did it at a public Q&A at the annual McDonald’s shareholders’ meeting in Chicago.

If an adult had made the same claim it likely would not have garnered a mention by the world’s media.

But when a nine-year-old confronts the head of one of the world’s largest corporations and takes him to task in front of hundreds of shareholders, reporters pay attention.

Robertson and her mom were there as guests of an advocacy group called Corporate Accountability International. Given what the Robertsons do—Hannah is featured prominently on her mom’s Today I Ate A Rainbow website—and what the advocacy group does, there were agendas at play in Chicago. This wasn’t just the plaintive voice of a lone child who thought of something to say on the spur of the moment.

I don’t doubt Hannah was sincere in her concern about what other kids are eating. And it was brave of her to get up and speak. But her “chastisement” of Thompson, as it is being called, was obviously a calculated move to gain attention. And in that it succeeded—spectacularly.

Since she confronted Thompson last Thursday, Hannah has had interview requests from media organizations across Canada, the US and her story has been reported by media outlets around the world. Her few minutes in front of that microphone in Chicago last week has done more to help advance her crusade for healthy eating among her peers than would ever have come about if McDonald’s had simply stopped distributing toys with Happy Meals without her asking. You can’t buy the publicity this story has provided for the Today I Ate A Rainbow website and program. Every media story written about her, mentions the website.

Hannah should be applauded for what she is doing. But the whole David and Goliath nature  of her question to Thompson seemed scripted.

For the record, Thompson denied McDonald’s sells “junk” food, listed healthy choices the restaurant chain has added to its menus like apple slices and salads, said he would also like to see kids eat more fruits and vegetables too and added, his kids eat McDonald’s food and he has no problem with that.

But Hannah didn’t seem impressed with Thompson’s answer. So, she gave him her card and suggested he e-mail her so they can talk more.

If he’s as smart as Hannah, he’ll take her up on the offer.

Alistair Waters is the assistant editor of the Capital News.


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