McDonald's Courts Moms As Fast-Food
Chain Enlists Its Toughest Customers to
Talk Up Menu's Healthful Side
Michael S. Rosenwald
November 20, 2008
The only obstacle between kids and their french fries:
So here is Debra DeMuth, McDonald's global nutrition
director, mounting a spirited defense of fries to five
mothers of young children at a McDonald's in Baltimore.
"They are probably one of the most victimized foods,"
Plausible reason: A medium order at McDonald's, besides
the delectable taste, includes 380 calories, 270
milligrams of sodium and a color preservative called
sodium acid pyrophosphate. But DeMuth presses her case,
pointing out that fries are rich in potassium, adding,
"They are also a really good source of fiber."
One mom replies, "Once you throw them in grease, you
kind of ruin it."
Another says, "Potassium is good in bananas."
This is the tricky dialogue that results when the
world's largest fast-food chain extols the quality of
its food to a group of people -- busy moms -- who often
need food fast but don't necessarily trust fast food,
especially with worries over obesity sweeping the
nation. But McDonald's thinks it has a positive case to
make and has recruited mothers to go behind the scenes
of the company's operations, meet senior executives and
then communicate what they see via the Web, along with
appearing in video of their travels.
The idea behind the company's Quality Correspondents
program: If McDonald's can win over moms by showcasing
food quality (the eggs in Egg McMuffins are real) and
highlighting healthful options, the company can brighten
its image at a crucial time in the arc of the fast-food
industry. Customers, bombarded with news about food
recalls, are paying more attention to safety, quality
and ingredients -- despite still not wanting to wait
very long for their lunch. The message takes on
heightened importance now, as strapped parents bargain
in their heads over whether a McDonald's meal can take
the place of higher-priced options.
McDonald's began the Quality Correspondents program
nationally last year and recently expanded it to five
moms in the Washington region who were selected from
several hundred women who responded to TV ads asking for
volunteers. The mothers are not paid. More than 83,000
people have followed the first iteration of the program
"McDonald's has a problem," said New York University
nutritionist Marion Nestle, author of "What to Eat."
"They're big, so they are an easy target. They sell junk
food, and they market it to kids at a time when public
obesity is a major public concern. So what are they
going to do? Turn into a health-food company? I don't
think they can do that. Somebody must have figured out
that what they need is good PR on transparency. Those
mothers are willing to be used for that purpose."
One of the moms, Veronica Gilmore, from Edinburg, Va.,
said no one tried to tell her what to say. "We've been
told to tell our perspective on things," she said.
"That's all we can ask for."
McDonald's executives are betting that if they can
shatter myths about the company's food -- a
slaughterhouse visit shows chickens being handled
humanely but also proves McNuggets contain chicken --
and display an obsessiveness with food safety and
quality to a select group of moms, the message will
trickle through society.
Jerry Swerling, director of the University of Southern
California's Strategic Public Relations Center, said
McDonald's is attempting to capitalize on a significant
shift in who consumers most trust for information.
"When people are asked to define who they trust and who
they believe, the answer is people like themselves, not
journalists and not academics," Swerling said. A recent
Edelman study showed most Americans think "a person like
me" is the most credible source for company information.
"Word of mouth is not just a different kind of
messenger," the study said. "It's a fundamental change
in the traditional value system of information."
The Internet offers a fast word-of-mouth tool, and
McDonald's is featuring the moms with diaries and video
on its Web site.
But the company still has explaining to do on fries,
which contain not only potatoes, and all their fiber,
but citric acid, dextrose and sodium acid pyrophosphate.
"Why do the french fries have so many ingredients in
them? Seeing all those ingredients listed raises some
red flags for me," LaShawna Fitzpatrick of Encino,
Calif., wrote on the Quality Correspondent Web site.
With the camera rolling, DeMuth stood her ground. "There
is just a lot of misunderstanding out there," she said.
"You really need to look at the facts."
Gilmore, a mother of three, replied, "You're not going
to be able to sell me on fries."
No one, Nestle said, is saying fast food doesn't have
nutritional value: "What it also has is a great deal of
processing, which removes nutrients, and a great deal of
things added that you don't need in order to make it
Although some of the moms said they thought McDonald's
was responding to "Super Size Me," a 2004 documentary in
which a filmmaker ate McDonald's daily and charted his
body's deterioration, executives dismissed such notions.
"This program wasn't in response to anything," said Tara
Hayes, manager of U.S. communications at McDonald's. "We
saw this as a great opportunity to give the facts and
let people make up their minds for themselves. You can
take it or leave it."
McDonald's is gambling that even if the moms say
negative things -- one said the food contains too much
sodium -- the company will win points for transparency.
The first bit of myth-busting came when the moms,
followed by a video crew, crowded into the walk-in
refrigerator at the Baltimore restaurant. There were
eggs stacked in a corner. Kelle Evans, a single mother
from Woodbridge, said, "What are these eggs for?"
Answer: McDonald's makes Egg McMuffins with them. Evans
"When I think of fast food, I don't think of them back
there breaking eggs open and cooking them," she said in
But although the McDonald's officials showed how the
eggs were cracked on the grill, they didn't offer a
similar lesson with the scrambled eggs, which are made
with liquid eggs. McDonald's officials said the liquid
eggs are identical in quality to liquid eggs at grocery
Evans was also surprised to see that the salads are made
individually, with bagged lettuce. The woman making the
salad wore tight plastic gloves. But Evans wasn't
pleased a few weeks later when she visited another
McDonald's and saw an employee making salads with her
bare hands. "I got a parfait and left," Evans said. "I
was grossed out."
On the Web, much bandwidth is devoted to a tour of the
nearby bun bakery. The mothers donned white lab coats
and hairnets to tour the factory, where the temperature
was more than 100 degrees. The video uploaded from the
tour occasionally shows the camera focusing on
food-safety signs. The moms are also shown how the
machines bounce unworthy buns off the conveyer belts.
In her journal entry, Michele Crosby, a Greenbelt mother
of two boys, wrote that on her way home she stopped for
a burger at McDonald's.
"I looked at the bun with new eyes," she wrote. "This
time I was amazed that the bun I received looked just
like the ones I had seen produced at the factory
earlier. I definitely thought of all the safety
standards, production innovations and pride that went
into making it. Corny as it sounds, I will never look at
a McDonald's bun the same way again!"
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