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McD's Newest Ad Platform: Report Cards

Not Surprisingly, Watchdogs Give Fast-Feeder's Play Failing Marks

By Published on .

CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- McDonald's has found a nifty way to reach kids even as TV ad options toward the demographic shrink: Advertise on report cards.
McDonald's Report Card
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This is not the first time the school district has run ads on report cards. Before McDonald's, the sponsor was Pizza Hut.

The Golden Arches picked up the $1,600 cost of printing report-card jackets for the 2007-2008 school year in Seminole County, Fla., in exchange for a Happy Meal coupon on the card's cover. With 27,000 elementary school kids taking their report-card jackets home to be signed three or four times a year, that's less than 2 cents per impression.

Children who earn all A's and B's, have two or fewer absences or exhibit good behavior are entitled to a free happy meal at a local McDonald's -- so long as they present their report card.

A 'new low'
Naturally, that's riled some consumer groups. "Lots of companies advertise directly in schools, but I think McDonald's has taken this to an all new low by advertising on report cards," said Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "It bypasses parents and targets children directly, [telling them] that doing well in school should be rewarded by a happy meal."

Regina Klaers, spokeswoman for the school district, said the report cards have contained some form of advertisement for the last decade. Until this year, Pizza Hut sponsored the printing. Ms. Klaers said when the company decided to pull out this year, the district shopped the sponsorship around. She added that only one parent has ever complained about the jackets.

"My daughter worked so hard to get good grades this term and now she believes she is entitled to a prize from McDonald's," Susan Pagan, an Orlando parent, said in a press release distributed by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "And now I'm the bad guy because I had to explain that our family does not eat at fast-food chains."

Michele Simon, author of "Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How to Fight Back," said that the school district is "selling kids' health for chump change."

"They should be embarrassed," she said. "If you're going to sell out kids' health you might as well get something good for it."

What's more, Ms. Simon said, the program seems to fly in the face of the fast-feeder's recent rhetoric about healthful eating. "It basically shows when you get down to it, how corporations are doing everything they can to keep their brands in front of kids' eyeballs," she said. "And the insidiousness of this is it's infiltrating an official document from a public school."

Recent health initiative
Last summer, McDonald's joined the Better Business Bureau's Children's Food and Advertising Initiative. Participants, including Kraft Foods, General Mills and Burger King, have agreed to limit advertising to children under 12 and focus on better-for-you options. The reductions were to have been apparent by January 2008. The McDonald's sponsorship will carry through the end of this school year.

Based on recent tweaks, the caloric and fat content of Happy Meals can vary widely. While a meal with a cheeseburger, fries and soda has 660 calories and 25 grams of fat, a white-meat chicken-nugget meal with apple dippers, caramel sauce and milk has 375 calories and 13.5 grams of fat.

William Whitman, spokesman for McDonald's USA, pointed out that children -- and their parents -- have a choice. "McDonald's has a longstanding and rich heritage of supporting education and academic excellence," he said. "McDonald's does not advertise in schools. However, we continue to support education initiatives in the communities we serve."

Ms. Linn said that food rewards for academic performance is still a controversial concept.

Yet it's got a long history. Pizza Hut's "Book It" program, in which elementary and preschool children who meet monthly reading goals are entitled to a free one-topping personal pizza each month, is 22 years old. The elementary program alone has nearly 1 million U.S. classrooms participating.
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