McDonalds gets an “A” for exploitation

Over the past couple of days I’ve been talking with people at the Society for New Communications Research and the Social Media Club here in Boston about the intersection of communication and culture. I support the idea of looking at the stuff of life as legitimate channels for communication – but this has to be done with an extremely high level of sensitivity – especially when the content is commercial.

This past week the Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood sent out an email exposing an exploitation of a cultural communication channel by McDonald’s. The program was built around commercial messages being included on report card envelopes of kids in kindergarten through fifth grade in Seminole County, Florida. It offered free Happy Meals to kids that did well in Academics, Citizenship or Attendance.

Here’s the piece that went out:

Some complained that the promotion forced them to be the bad guys if they said “no” to the free Happy Meal; that kids might feel that they were entitled to a reward for their accomplishments; that it was simply inappropriate for commercial characters and messages to be included via this channel.

This isn’t the first time – and nor is McDonald’s the first company – to do this type of “sponsorship;” and some might argue that if communities don’t want this type of thing they should find alternative ways to fund local schools. The fact is though that even with full funding – if someone offers a school system with cash few are going to say “no.”

So using the idea of cultural communications, how might McDonald’s accomplished its marketing goal without raising the hackles of parents and advocacy groups?

First, they could have taken their commercial message off of the envelope all together – but still have paid the school for the mailing. Since this was a local program, they could have promoted their sponsorships in-store and perhaps generated positive word-of-mouth.

Second, they could have included parents in conversation. This was one of the things they were criticized for – and rightly so – they were marketing directly to kids and setting up potential conflict between kids and parents. Again, a program that was aimed at parents in the stores, letting them know that McDonald’s would let them – the parents – bring their kids into a store for a free Happy Meal would have make the reward the parents could bestow if they say fit. This would have made mom and dad – as well as McDonald’s into the hero.

Third, they could have made the program broader and more interesting. For example, rather then just giving kids a free meal for a report card, why not create a redeemable currency that kids could collect and save for meals or merchandise online? This would be something that would include the parents and the kids – and, for those that opted to participate – create and even stronger tie between the customers and the brand.

Instead, McDonald’s took the easiest path and is getting hammered (coverage has appeared in the New York Times, the AP and in local papers in Orlando). Cultural communications can work; it just has to be handled with more intelligence and sensitivity than was demonstrated in this case.

What do you think? Would you feel comfortable with a program like this in your community?

[tags]McDonald’s, education, marketing, cultural communications, report cards, Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood[/tags]

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Lots on tap this week

Some times I just don’t know where the years slip away to.  It’s already December – how did that happen?  And it’s not like December is a quiet month – despite what people may say – not for me at least.

I’ve been looking forward to this week for a while.  Why?  Because the Society for New Communications Research Symposium is happening here in Boston.  If you’re in town and interested in attending, let me know and I can hook you up with a sweet deal.  You can also register here.

Now I go to all kinds of events but I’ve been looking forward to this one in particular because I’ll be presenting – along with John Cass, Paul Gillin and Richard Nacht – initial results from our New Influencer study.  So far what we’ve found is interesting.  It mostly boils down, at least in the area that I am working on, to the fact that people are totally into social media but aren’t really thinking about the right things when they’re trying to judge and understand influence.  I’d say more but then people might not come to the event . . .

I’m also super thrilled to be presenting as award on Wednesday night.  Being an award presenter has been one of my long time dreams and I can’t believe it is going to come true.  (Now if I can only loose 40 lbs. between now and tomorrow I should be able to fit into my tux . . .).  I’m also going to be moderating a panel on Thursday afternoon so if the doctor prescribed more GregPC you’ll get your fill over the next couple of days.

And if this wasn’t enough . . . There’s also a Social Media Club/Boston event on Thursday night.  It’s going to take place after the SNCR Symposium and will be focused on the future of social media.  You can register and get all the details on the SMC/B wiki.

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