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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