'We don't sell junk food': McDonald's CEO's comment sparks backlash against 9-year-old

'We don't sell junk food,' McDonald's CEO told 9-year-old Hannah Robertson, but now Hannah's also a target of toxic comments. Hannah's mother and McDonald's discuss the controversy that occurred when the 'We don't sell junk food' comment hit the Internet.

Courtesy of Corporate Accountability International
Hannah Robertson

The mother of a nine-year-old girl who addressed McDonald's CEO Don Thompson at a shareholder’s meeting about the corporate practice of using toys included in meals as a means of getting kids to eat unhealthy food says there has been an enormous backlash in comments against her child from the brand’s supporters. The fast food corporate giant also says the comments are unacceptable, stating that it hopes its supporters would show courtesy to those who have dissenting views like Hannah rather than bashing a child for her opinion.

This story has become both a civics lesson and a cautionary tale for parents who want to raise brave children who stand by their beliefs. The problem with helping our kids stand up for their beliefs is that we also have to teach them to weather the storm of criticism from online trolls (those who post nastygrams just to cause upset and hostility), bullies, and meanies.

As a parent of four sons, one of them nine years old, I regularly encourage my boys to express their beliefs, so I can understand why Kia Robertson agreed to accept the offer of the activist group Corporate Accountability of Boston and fly with her child from Kelowna, Canada to Hamburger University in Illinois so her daughter could formally address the CEO and shareholders during a scheduled meeting of the minds.

I also share her shock at the outpouring of toxic comments directed at a little girl by people more committed to an eatery than humanity.

Margaret Meade once said, “It is easier to change a man's religion than to change his diet.” Amen to that, sister!

After reading some of the comments on stories about this event, I see it’s considered by some akin to treason and flag-burning to suggest that the fast food chain outed in the documentary film "Super Size Me" is anything other than ideal.

What did Hannah say to Thompson in that fateful meeting that has the McMob enraged?

She read from a written statement her mom helped her prepare, according to The Raw Story.

“Something I don’t think is fair is when big companies try to trick kids into eating food that isn’t good for them by using toys and cartoon characters," Hannah read. "If parents haven’t taught their kids about healthy eating, then the kids probably believe that junk food is good for them because it might taste good.”

“It would be nice if you stopped trying to trick kids into wanting to eat your food all the time,” the younger Robertson continued, still reading from the statement. “I make cooking videos with my mom that show kids that eating healthy can be fun and yummy. We teach them that eating a rainbow of fruits and veggies makes kids healthier, smarter, and happier because that is the truth.”

According to The Raw Story, an alternative news site, instead of being gracious when a child was a guest at his corporate table, Thompson shot back, saying, “First of all, we don’t sell junk food, Hannah.”

Contrary to some of the many comments I have seen posted on various stories about Hannah, her mom did not “burst into a board meeting, child in tow” to randomly shout at the CEO. Also, it wasn’t something she initiated as a publicity stunt for her tiny Canadian online business, which promotes healthy cooking with your kids, according to Robertson.

“It all started last April when this group called Corporate Accountability went looking for mommy bloggers to address their concerns as part of the Moms Not Loving It (a play on the brand’s I’m Loving it slogan) over various practices of corporations marketing to children,” Kia said during a phone interview. (The campaign can be found online here.)

Jesse Bragg, press secretary for Corporate Accountability International, confirmed that the organizers there contacted Kia, not the other way around.

The fact is that the lobbying group Corporate Accountability of Boston flew the Canadian mom and daughter to Hamburger University in Chicago for the board meeting.

Sriram Madhusoodanan, who is an organizer on the Value the Meal Campaign run by Corporate Accountability, seconded Bragg, saying, “I can definitely confirm that we traveled to Blog Her last year, which is a conference of women who blog... We met so many moms who blog and are sick of the repeated efforts by the company to undermine parental efforts.

“We began with Moms Not Loving It, launched on Mothers Day, and then we saw this incredibly moving and personal post by Kia. But Hannah is so articulate and passionate about kids’ health. Hannah really wanted to speak up herself on behalf of kids, so that’s what we did instead of [just] having her mom speak.”

Madhusoodanan said his team had not really expected this meeting to garner such viral media attention.

“I think it’s unfortunate that McDonald's can spend multimillions of dollars to campaign with little resistance, but here’s a little girl like Hannah delivering such a powerful message and getting this kind of blowback from McDonalds supporters,” he said.

Meanwhile, McDonald's also says the encounter has been misstated in the media. 

“The headlines on this really don’t reflect what happened in that board room," Heidi Barker Sa Shekshem, the vice-president of Global External Communication McDonald’s Corporate, said. "Don Thompson had a very amicable exchange with Hannah. They were both very friendly and as a father, he would only want Hannah’s remarks to be treated in that same spirit by anyone outside our organization. We would like to see anyone out there engaging in discussion on this to follow that same amicable spirit.”

Kia Robertson said that she never imagined how vicious McDonald's supporters would be in their responses to her supporting her child’s decision to make her beliefs known to corporate America.

“People have been really rough on us over this, saying I’m a bad parent and accusing me of just doing this to promote my business,” Kia said. “Some of the things they wrote to Hannah directly via our website are just too vile and ugly to repeat. She hasn’t seen any of those, but it’s frightening to see people writing to a child this way. I guess being behind a computer, people feel like they can be that way to a child.”

Someone posting under the name sotoli commented on a UPI blog on Hannah, “know what Hanna, if you don't like the food there, simple solution, EAT WHERE YOU DO LIKE THE FOOD. I don't like salads, but I don't go and try and make salad restaraunts look bad. You come off as a spoiled brat saying things will have to be my way or no way.”

Meanwhile, Wayne Russell Hawkins, a worker at a Simpsonville, S.C., McDonald's location, posted on another news story about Hannah, “you know....if you don't like it, don't eat it...I am PROUD to work at the number 1 restaurant chain in the world!”

Another poster named Schuyler commented on the UPI story, “Don't worry Mr. Thompson; no intelligent person is going to listen to a snotty little brat begging for attention and egged on my her idiot mother. When I want a Big Mac, fries and a chocolate shake no words from a rug rat is going to affect my decision.”

Those were the tamest comments I could find. I was relieved when they were rebutted by people with some sense of decorum who related their stories about how members of their own families had seen a decline in health after prolonged eating of “junk food” at the fast food chain.

A commenter named Susan posted on the same UPI blog, “About 10 years ago my friend's 19 year old son got an apartment in walking distance of his job. There was a McDonald's in his neighborhood. For 30 days he ate McDonald's 3 times a day. Then he was hospitalized for 5 days for serious gastro-intestinal problems that the doctors said was caused by his diet. You decide... does McDonald's sell "junk food"?”

Hannah's mother Kia said the situation has had some positive effects.

“On the good side Hannah’s been getting some really nice emails from kids via their parents," she said. "She’s now gonna have penpals in Texas and all over. Even the Canadian children’s singer Raffi tweeted for people to ‘give Hannah a hug.’ ”

I’m going to go to Raffi for the wisdom to solve all of this business via his song, “The More we Get Together.”

"The more we get together, Together, together, The more we get together, The happier we'll be.
 ‘Cause your friends are my friends, And my friends are your friends. The more we get together, The happier we'll be."

I believe it was the right thing to do as a parent to bring a little girl together with a grown corporate leader and all those shareholders and reporters. Because we don’t need more meanies or upset in the world. The more we get together to discuss our views, the happier we’ll be.

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