Big Bird isn't grabbing burgers anymore at the McDonald's on the street where the sun always shines. For the first time in about seven years, McDonald's (MCD) is no longer a corporate sponsor of the venerable Sesame Street, a relationship that activists have long derided given the program's commitment to promoting healthy eating as childhood obesity rates soar.
The burger chain's messages stopped appearing in January, in a move that apparently attracted little publicity at the time. McDonald's was until then a welcome partner. In press material promoting Sesame Street's 40th season, which began in November, McDonald's waxed poetic about its positive impact on America's youth.
"An important part of McDonald's rich history is their commitment to the education of children. In step with their efforts of bringing a sense of joy and imagination to life, McDonald's feels that there are few things as special as the curiosity, happiness and wonderment of a child," the Des Plains, Illinois-based company says.
"Strict Guidelines" Are in Force
Like all shows on Public Broadcasting System, Sesame Street publicly acknowledges its corporate underwriters, a practice that has grown more aggressive for years much to the chagrin of those who worry that the messages are little more than thinly disguised commercials. Sesame Street, which recently announced it was developing a bilingual nutrition program, denies that its relationship with McDonald's was improper. A McDonald's spokeswoman could not be immediately be reached.
"As you may know, PBS is non-commercial, and all corporate underwriters on public television must adhere to strict guidelines provided by PBS in order for their messages to air. As such, the McDonald's sponsorship messages did not show product, announce promotions, or contain any call to action, nor do any of our Sesame Street characters appear in them," says Beatrice Chow, a spokeswoman for Sesame Workshop, the program's nonprofit producer, in an email to DailyFinance.
Though Chow says the decision was mutual, Margot Wootan of the Center for Science and the Public Interest, says executives at Sesame told her it was their idea. Regardless, Wootan, director of nutrition policy, says the move is long overdue.
"I was glad to see Sesame part ways with McDonald's," she says, adding that while the fast-food chain has agreed to only promote healthy food to children "the overwhelming choices on the kid's menu are not so healthy."
McDonald's Happy Meals have long been the bane of activists for their high calorie content and their endless commercial tie-ins with products aimed at children. The problem is that kids are susceptible to this type of persuasion. Recent research also has indicated that preschool children, even if they don't know how to read, are more aware of brands than experts had realized.
Indeed, internal Sesame Workshop research found that kids will eat healthy fare with their favorite characters such as Elmo and Cookie Monster on it. They'll also do the same for unhealthy food, says Jennifer Kotler, director of research at Sesame Workshop. Hain Celestial Group (HAIN) sells a line of Sesame-branded organic food under the Earth's Best brand that features the show's characters. Earth's Best remains an on-air sponsor of the beloved children's show.
Sesame Workshop says it's worried about childhood obesity as well. First Lady Michelle Obama appeared on Sesame Street in November as part of her crusade to get kids to eat healthier and be more active. Even Cookie Monster tells youngsters that cookies are a "sometime food." The nonprofit argues that it's imperative for kids to develop good eating habits when they're young.
"By the time a child is between two and four years old, [their] eating habits are largely shaped," Sesame Workshop says on its website. " If [he or she] reaches the age of five without learning about healthy eating, the chances of developing poor nutritional habits and attitudes are significantly increased."