The Please Touch Museum Presented by McDonald's Kids Charities is the latest instance of the spread of corporate branding to institutions that exclusively serve children - and is fueling a public debate over whether that kind of marketing is appropriate.
Parents, consumer advocates and museum officials are asking: Is this due recognition for good corporate citizenship? Or is it one more opportunity to advertise a product to the littlest, most impressionable consumers?
"It's a total sellout, as far as I'm concerned," said Deanna Mayer of Westtown, Chester County, the mother of three small children. "I'll never go there again."
Said Andrew Hagelshaw, executive director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education in Oakland, Calif.: "You're turning more and more public space meant for young people into advertising opportunities. If this type of advertising on a children's museum is OK, then is it OK on a children's playground, on a children's library . . . ? Where does it end?"
Others, including some parents, applaud corporate support. "The company is taking an active role with children," said Keith Harris of Woolwich Township, Gloucester County, who was visiting the museum with his son the other day. "I don't see any harm in that."
Museums and children's attractions such as zoos have long recognized corporate support of exhibitions in more modest ways. The St. Louis Zoo has the Anheuser-Busch Hippo Harbor and the Philadelphia Zoo has the Peco Primate Reserve.
But the Please Touch Museum's 20-year deal with McDonald's, announced last December, is rare. It takes corporate sponsorship to another, more lucrative level, a type of arrangement that is expected to grow.
In a separate deal announced simultaneously, McDonald's was awarded a 20-year contract to handle the museum's food service.
"Corporate sponsorships are here to stay," said Janet Rice Elman, executive director of the Association of Children's Museums, who pointed to the cutbacks in government funding. "Children's museums are nonprofit institutions that need that kind of support."
Please Touch, now on 21st Street, is in the middle of a $65 million capital-building campaign that will allow it to triple its space in the new location to 136,000 square feet. So far, it has raised $41 million. McDonald's is, by far, the largest private donor; the State of Pennsylvania has given $15 million.
"We needed the money," said Nancy D. Kolb, the museum's president and CEO, who vigorously defends corporate sponsorship. "Why should sports teams be getting it all? It's not a change in the name of the museum. We're still the Please Touch Museum. That always goes first."
The deal has attracted national attention, and children's museums in Boston, Indianapolis and New York City have called to ask how the Please Touch Museum won the sponsorship.
David Murphy, regional vice president for McDonald's Corp., said his company and the museum share "core values."
"The fact that one's for-profit, like a McDonald's, and one is nonprofit, like a Please Touch Museum, I think should not exclude us from working together." McDonald's would neither have nor want control over displays, he said.
But it does want its name out front. Originally the presenting sponsor was to be named as McDonald's, but it has been changed to McDonald's Kids Charities, which is providing the funds.
"We've reached the age and stage where philanthropy is routinely considered part of the marketing strategy," said Anne Buchanan, president of Buchanan Public Relations in Ardmore. "It's an extra branding reminder that this is a company all about kids."
This year the American Association of Museums will issue guidelines on sponsorships. Children's museums will be urged to avoid tobacco, firearms and alcohol companies.
Children's museums are growing faster than any other type of museum in the United States, more than doubling in number over the last decade to about 216. Attendance, too, has skyrocketed, from 8 million reported visitors in 1991 to 35 million last year.
A quarter of children's museums are in the midst of capital building campaigns - the average goal is $14.5 million - and more than 80 new children's museums are expected to open in the next three to five years, Elman said. Given that, directors are particularly hungry for funding.
Advocates for less commercialization, though, worry that the sale of naming rights has gone too far.
"In an age when childhood obesity is a major public health problem, how is it responsible to market fast food to children?" asked psychologist Susan Linn, associate director of the media center at the Judge Baker Children's Center, affiliated with Harvard Medical School.
Young children, she said, are especially vulnerable to marketing because they can't differentiate between an ad and program content until about age 7. "They don't understand the intent to sell," she said. "McDonald's and the museum is all going to blend together. . . . The museum says, 'McDonald's is good for me.' "
The Children's Museum of Cleveland discovered the mixed message that corporate logos send to children in 1997, when it changed its name to the Rainbow Children's Museum and TRW Early Learning Center. The name change, which allowed the museum to keep its doors open, acknowledged donations from Rainbow Hospital and manufacturer TRW.
"We had little children getting off school buses and hanging onto the post outside afraid to come in because they thought they had to get shots," executive director Karen Prasser said.
The Cleveland museum dropped its sponsors' names last year. Please Touch, she said, has found a good balance by keeping its name intact.
But Marie Malaro, a former director of museum studies at George Washington University, said: "Corporate sponsorship undermines the integrity of the nonprofit sector. The next thing you know, the product is displayed, the logo. . . . It never stops."
True philanthropy, she said, should flow without the expectation of anything in return. Corporate sponsorship is not the same. "The corporation has an obligation to give back to the community," she said. "Do it, shut up, and don't expect anything in return."
Hold on, said psychologist David Young, a market researcher in San Diego. "If a corporation does good things for society, what's wrong with getting credit for it?"
Debbra Fernaays of Mount Holly, a mother of four who was visiting the museum, concurred. "They are a business, and if they're going to donate $5 million, you've got to let them get something out of it."
Lini S. Kadaba's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.