A week or so ago, the news was announced that McDonald's would be serving their Happy Meals with a side of literacy - 9 million free Michael Morpurgo books will be given away in place of the usual plastic toys. As The Guardian said, not everyone found this an "appetising" deal - ho ho. Not usually known for its philanthropic, moral or indeed healthy values, like it or not McDonalds could technically be seen as January's biggest book retailer with this deal - although of course the books will be free. Indeed many would question if a fast food restaurant was the right place to promote literacy and if this was really all a cynical marketing ploy.
Well, with positive support from the National Literacy Trust, who said - "We are very supportive of McDonald's decision to give families access to popular books, as its size and scale will be a huge leap towards encouraging more families to read together." and Booktrust who commented - "This partnership with McDonald's Happy Meals and HarperCollins sends a really powerful message that reading is for everyone," it seems that officially it's the nutritionists getting cross. The Daily Mail quoted the Children's Food Campaign, who said - "At a time when we have a childhood obesity epidemic this is clearly an inappropriate marketing strategy." Unfortunately it looks like an illiteracy epidemic and an obesity epidemic are knocking heads here.
So firstly, is McDonald's an appropriate place for a book promotion campaign? When I was at university and writing my dissertation, I was horrified by the trend towards supermarkets becoming the UK's biggest book retailers - their ranges were narrow and at the time, the thought of books alongside tins of beans was highly unappealing to my literary sensitivities (largely it was this article that had me feeling it was all a bit gross - the power of Wall-Mart to make or break a brand!). However, now I'm aware that in fact many busy mums and dads who wouldn't normally venture into a book store, or think to buy their child reading material, may now do so if they can get it whilst they get their weekly shop. Also, just because a supermarket is the biggest retailer of something, doesn't mean it is the best - if you want quality, range, advice and atmosphere then you'll head down to your local indie. I hope! Ideally the volume of books sold in supermarkets helps to support a broader range of retailers and titles.
Similarly, while I might wish that this scheme could be implemented in libraries or a book shop or other literacy related venue, the point of this campaign is to reach those who don't normally enter such environments. According to McDonald's stats, eight out of ten families visit the chain and so the opportunity to target children is unavoidably enormous.
But is it a cynical marketing ploy? Now of course, whilst publishers need to make money like any other business, can we at least agree the product is something worth marketing? Even if we were rubbing our hands together and gleefully mulling over all those children wanting to buy books, the outcome is still a positive one. But in fact, after a presentation from the team at HC who created the deal, I thought it really was a labour of love. Special sales and editorial worked closely together, with Michael always involved and consulted. Amazing lengths were pursued in order to comply with the regulations required and print the books in time and to a high standard. Literacy was always considered, right down to the POS promoting the books in the restaurants and the website that will accompany the books. The Happy Meal box itself includes a voucher to go to WHSmith and get two other titles for £1 each, also by Morpurgo. Every effort has been taken to ensure it's a love of books that is grown from this scheme.
I couldn't agree more with Jack Sallabank at the National Literacy Trust who said their interest "is not related to the number of Happy Meals sold. Nine million books will be distributed to children during the campaign. In a society where one in three children don't own a book, this type of campaign will be hugely effective," I don't really believe that anyone goes to McDonalds and buys the Happy Meal for the toy - even as a child I was definitely more interested in the nuggets than whatever swivelling plastic creation was next to it. So, conversely, I don't really believe many customers will go into McDonalds in order to get a book for free. If it was the book they wanted, they could buy all six adventures in a bind up, which has an RRP of £7.99. I haven't had a Happy Meal in a few years, so I'm not sure how much they are, but if they're still about £2 then you can purchase the book for less money than six Happy Meals.
All I'm saying is that yes some people may question the moral integrity of partnering with McDonalds, of course and if you think it's a terrible idea, that's fine - and I'm happy the whole thing has created the discussion. But in my opinion, children are currently eating at McDonald's regardless and so if we can put a book in their hands whilst they're there, then all the better. If even a 1% of the books are taken home, read, and enjoyed and spark the reading bug, it will be worth it.
McDonalds will be giving away Mudpuddle Farm books with Happy Meals until 7th February. http://www.happystudio.com/