McDonald's CEO: 'The Way You Describe Us Is Not Who We Are'

Thompson Answers Critics Charging Chain with Contributing to Obesity, 'Predatory' Marketing

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Don Thompson
Don Thompson Credit: McDonald's
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McDonald's CEO Don Thompson delivered a pointed retort to critics at the chain's annual shareholders meeting Thursday morning: "The way you describe us is not who we are."

Mr. Thompson was responding to critics who say the chain markets unfairly to kids and exploits children of color in its marketing. Corporate Accountability International, a consumer advocacy group that routinely criticizes McDonald's for marketing to kids, was on hand at the meeting to confront the company about its marketing and issue a proposal. Like last year, CAI brought a proposal up for vote that would call on the company to issue a report assessing the chain's impact on public health. And like last year, it was struck down, this time with 6.3% of shareholders voting for the proposal.

After Mr. Thompson was asked by a CAI representative when the company will stop targeting kids and undermining childrens' health, he said: "The way you describe us is not who we are."

McDonald's -- and many other fast-food chains -- for years has been under fire for marketing directly to kids, particularly with its Happy Meal, TV ads and, in recent years, online games. But the chain has said it's made strides through a modified Happy Meal announced in 2011 that includes apple slices and low-fat milk. It also last year launched Happy Meal ads that focused on nutrition and highlighted the apples and milk.

Though it's a common occurrence for critics to call on the company to reform its marketing tactics, Mr. Thompson said the issue of kids of color hit close to home for him when he was asked: "CEO Thompson, when is McDonald's going to stop its aggressive marketing to communities of color?"

The question was posed by Michelle Dyre, a young African-American woman and self-described millennial who recently completed an internship at Corporate Accountability International.

"Especially outrageous is McDonald's targeting children of color," she said during the Q&A session. "Children of color are already more likely to live in environments where healthy food is less available. That they are more likely to develop diet-related diseases than their white counterparts should be no surprise considering how McDonald's overwhelmingly targets them with predatory marketing."

Mr. Thompson, an African-American, said that McDonald's has not and will not try to "target people of color with subversive tactics." He began his response by saying that the issue hits close to home, followed by, "I wonder why."

"I grew up in the neighborhood," said Mr. Thompson, a native Chicagoan who is from Cabrini Green, a low-income public housing project. He said that his family often couldn't even afford McDonald's. He added that though there needs to be more fresh foods available to people who grew up in circumstances like his, "the epidemic of obesity is not about McDonald's."

Ms. Dyre also brought up athletes that appear in McDonald's marketing such as LeBron James, Gabby Douglas and Venus Williams. "Not only does McDonald's use athletes of color in advertising such as Gabrielle Douglas, Venus Williams and LeBron James, it also invokes culturally inappropriate stereotypes and borrows liberally from hip-hop culture, to aggressively target children of color." Mr. Thompson said that the athletes "don't view us as the brand you view us as.... We're not the brand that you describe."

Other critics asked Mr.Thompson when the chain would leave children alone and let parents decide what's best for them. Mr. Thompson noted that McDonald's is part of the Children's Food and Beverage Initiative -- a marketing-industry self-regulation group -- also noting that the average McDonald's customer visits the chain three to four times per month, and thus McDonald's cannot shoulder all the blame for the obesity epidemic. "We're not the cause of obesity," he said, adding that the chain doesn't market unjustly to kids. He said that in recent years the chain hasn't included Ronald McDonald in ads and noted that it offers apple slices and low-fat milk in its Happy Meals. He added that the chain offers a $1 side salad and also recently unveiled its Egg White Delight McMuffin, which has egg whites and fewer calories than the standard McMuffin.

Other adversaries included a group of protesters outside the meeting that called for $15 per hour wages and the right to form unions without interference -- a move that's part of a campaign called Fast Food Forward. A similar group protested outside of Wendy's annual meeting Thursday.

McDonald's wasn't just barraged with accusations, though. The Humane Society appeared at the annual meeting, not to criticize, but to applaud the company for being a pioneer among fast-food chains to end the widely criticized practice of using gestation crates, which give confined pigs little to no movement for extended periods of time. Since McDonald's announced the policy to phase out the practice, more than 50 other major pork buyers in the country followed the chain's footsteps, said a representative of the Humane Society.

The accolades didn't go unnoticed by McDonald's. Mr Thompson said the company appreciates the recognition and Chief Operating Officer Tim Fenton said, "We are an industry leader and we take that seriously."