- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Listen to your mother. Or, at least, to someone’s mother. That’s the rationale behind McDonald’s Corp.’s Moms Quality Correspondents program.

The embattled fast-food giant has enlisted a squadron of moms — the primary mealtime decision-makers in most households — to witness firsthand the company’s commitment to food safety and a sustainable supply chain and then fan out to evangelize among parents concerned about nutrition, quality and value.

The McMoms campaign combines a very old form of communication (listening to your friends, family and neighbors) with the very new viral communication of the Internet age (blogs, short video clips, Facebook pages). Last year, Edelman Public Relations did a study that showed most Americans think “a person like me” is the most credible source for company information.

The initiative comes not a moment too soon. McDonald’s, like other fast-food chains, has been on the defensive of late as muckraking movies like “Super Size Me” and books such as “Fast Food Nation” have heightened public fears about industry practices and Americans continue to lose the battle with obesity.

Let’s just say it is not a good time to be a Quarter Pounder with fries.

McDonald’s began the Moms Quality Correspondents program nationally in 2007 and signed on five Baltimore-Washington-area correspondents in 2008 after putting out the call for applicants through newspapers and television spots. The correspondents are not paid and are selected to reflect a variety of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. The idea: Working mom, stay-at-home mom, single mom, large family or small — everyone is busy, and everyone wants the best for her family.

“The primary focus of the program is education,” says Rebecca Gallagher, marketing manager for McDonald’s for the Baltimore-Washington region. “We take [the moms] behind the counter. We’ve taken them to suppliers. They have seen that the chicken is 100 percent white meat. They talk about it in online journals, videos and to their family and friends. That can be much more credible than when we say it.”

Sonya Grier, an associate professor at American University’s Kogod School of Business whose primary focus of study is obesity and marketing, says going to the grass-roots level is smart marketing on the part of McDonald’s. These days, the line between what is marketing or advertising and what is simply conversation is fuzzy, she says.

“The program is a way of engaging customers, giving them some insight and making them believe McDonald’s is a good choice,” she says. “But like most things, there are shades of gray. It depends on what McDonald’s is showing them behind the scenes and why the moms signed on to the program.”

Michele Crosby, a mother of two and part-time grant writer from Greenbelt, says she volunteered (and was chosen from among hundreds of applicants) to be a quality correspondent because she thought it would be interesting to learn about the inner workings of McDonald’s. She has since been to plants where the buns and the beef patties are made and has learned how to make McCafe coffee drinks.

“It was my first experience with manufacturing plants,” she says. “It was very interesting to see the quality of meat, the safety checks and the uniformity of the product.”

Lee Ann Crochunis, a Carroll County, Md., stay-at-home mother of two girls, also was concerned about food safety when she volunteered to be a quality correspondent. Eating on the fly is a fact of life as children’s activities increasingly take over family schedules, she says, so parents might as well know what they are eating and how to make smart meal choices.

“Having kids who are starting to be involved in activities, you see so many people show up at practice at 6:15 with [fast-food] bags,” Mrs. Crochunis says.

Keith Ayoob, a registered dietitian and associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, says anything that can help Americans make better food choices is a worthwhile program. Because fast food is a choice many people are making, recommending portion control and better ordering is more valuable advice than saying, “Don’t eat there at all.”

“I guess the message [McDonald’s] is trying to promote is it is not so much where you go, it is what you choose,” says Mr. Ayoob, who specializes in children’s nutrition. “You can go to McDonald’s and get a Happy Meal and swap out apple slices for fries and 1 percent milk for soda, and you’ve got a pretty low-cal meal.

“I think for the [fast-food] naysayers, you can’t complain about what they are doing and then complain when they do what you want,” he says. “I tell parents they can eat at McDonald’s anytime they want, just stay over here, away from sugary drinks or anything that says ‘Super Size.’ If you make the wrong choice, it wasn’t like you were forced.”

At some point, the responsibility has to lie with the consumer and what he orders and not with a restaurant and what it is selling, Mr. Ayoob says. If it takes a troop of moms to blog and speak and chatter about the message of portion control and healthier choices, then creating one is a good move, he says.

“It is a good thing if McDonald’s can show people there are healthy options on the menu, that you don’t have to eat Super Size and it won’t cost you more,” he says.

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