The national debate on corporate responsibility played out in a microcosm at McDonald's annual meeting Thursday, when votes on shareholder proposals became a referendum on the pursuit of profit versus the question of what constitutes the public good.
Critics hammered McDonald's executives not only for offering unhealthful menu items but also for marketing fast food to kids with its Ronald McDonald character and Happy Meal toys — all while boasting eight straight years of sales growth despite a deep economic recession.
McDonald's response was powerful too, tapping into the fundamental notion of American freedom.
"This is all really about choice," McDonald's Corp. CEO Jim Skinner said at the meeting, held at company headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. He said that while shareholders have the right to communicate concerns, the company should also have the right to advertise its menu offerings. "It's about protecting people's rights in this democratic society that we live in."
As for Ronald McDonald?
"Ronald McDonald is an ambassador to McDonald's, and he is an ambassador for good," Skinner said. "Ronald McDonald isn't going anywhere."
Critics' main beef with McDonald's is its marketing to America's children, thus side-stepping the thorny retort "If you don't like McDonald's, don't eat there."
Children are susceptible to the advertising that McDonald's spends hundreds of millions of dollars on each year, said Juliana Shulman, national compaign organizer for Corporate Accountability International.
"For adults that's one thing, but children aren't just little adults. Their brains are just forming," Shulman said. "McDonald's marketing is really designed to get around parents and get to kids directly. For nearly 50 years, McDonald's has been working to hook kids on unhealthy foods…. Parents are exercising parental responsibility. That alone won't stop the problem."
That marketing, including the Ronald McDonald mascot, is why Dr. Steven Rothschild, director of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, signed an open letter published in several newspaper advertisements this week.
"You don't put a clown in front of an adult face because it's a happy association. It's aimed at children," Rothschild said. "Parents do have to say no to their children. This is not the nanny state issue. This is one of creating conditions that make it a fair fight — so parents can make good choices, so they have McDonald's working with them not against them."
Critics say they target McDonald's and its annual meetings and not those of, say, Wendy's or Taco Bell's parent corporations because McDonald's is the industry leader, and others will follow suit.
McDonald's executives say the company is working to be part of the solution. The company already allows parents to request milk or juice instead of soda in Happy Meals and offers sliced apples with carmel sauce and chicken nuggets instead of French fries and hamburgers.
"We now provide more choice and variety than anyone else in the industry," a spokeswoman said. "Fruit and walnut oatmeal is the latest example, and that complements our premium salads, apple dippers, and 1% low-fat milk."