McD's Likely to Get Fried by Passive Response to Study

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

McDonald's had better start preparing some black-and-white packaging. And get ready to tear down the arches.

According to a study by Stanford University's Packard Children's Hospital, preschoolers, when presented with identical food items -- one in a McDonald's wrapper and the other without -- overwhelmingly rated the branded one as tasting better. It's the sort of thing that strikes fear into the hearts of parents. It's also the sort of thing that puts a twinkle in the eyes of health advocates and regulation-happy politicians looking for another triumph for the good of the children.

And the best McDonald's can offer is a too-little-too-late comment focusing on the facts as the marketer sees them. After the story had appeared in countless media outlets, McDonald's released a statement pointing out that its own branding "of milk, apples, salads and other fruits and vegetables has directly resulted in major increases in the purchases of these menu items. ... McDonald's is only advertising Happy Meals with white-meat McNuggets, fresh apple slices and low-fat milk. ... To put this topic in its proper context, McDonald's Happy Meal customers on average purchase two a month."

Context and facts are nice, but they're not nearly enough.

And while McDonald's might not want to be seen as picking on a children's hospital, if it doesn't want to end up selling oatmeal in clear plastic containers, it's going to have to respond to such criticism more aggressively. The first thing it should have done in this case is attack the study on its merits. Get a child-development expert to point out that children prefer bright colors to plain paper packaging. Get a statistician to say that 63 children in one Head Start program is too small a sample.

Next, McDonald's should have activated its allies. There are pundits out there who are sick of the abdication of personal responsibility in these matters (and some of them might like Big Macs). They would be more than happy to take the fight to the public, perhaps pointing out that it wasn't the fast feeder who put TV sets in the bedrooms of 31 of the children under the age of 5 who participated in the study. And Ronald didn't drive 30% of the 63 children to the store and buy them hamburgers and french fries.

Slamming the fast feeder, Thomas Robinson, director of the Center for Healthy Weight at Packard, said, "This is a company that knows what they're doing."

Sometimes, we wonder.
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